Being the youngest member of his large household, Executive Chef Tony Fortner learned early on that if he helped his mother in the kitchen, he would be able to eat while they worked, and not have to worry about having enough to eat when it was time for dinner. The extended family included six, plus two of his cousins. Tony’s mother, Mattie Adams, was then and still is, an inspiration to him. “My mother cooked everything from scratch,” he says over Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Nothing ever came from a can.” As a child as young as seven, he started off preparing food for cooking, such as snapping green beans, to learning how to make macaroni and cheese for the whole family. “I would help her cook, and eat the whole time! By the time dinner was ready, I wasn’t even hungry,” Tony says.
Executive Chef Tony Fortner
The Cleveland Heights native got his first job in a restaurant, while attending high school, at 14 years old. The restaurant was called Earth by April, located at Cedar and Lee in Cleveland Heights. It was a very popular, high-end seafood and vegetarian restaurant. Cleveland Magazine said, “When it opened in 1973, the Cleveland Heights spot aimed to be the area’s first counterculture seafood and vegetarian restaurant with a vast buffet of marinated vegetables and cold salads.” Tony started working there in 1979, and his life changed direction.
“One Friday night, the cook didn’t show up, and I was asked to come off of dishes and cook. We were making tempura vegetables and tempura shrimp,” Tony says. “I was timid in the beginning, but two hours into it, I was cooking as if I always had,” he laughs. The owner asked Tony if he wanted to move into a cook role, which paid $4.25 per hour, a nice increase over the minimum wage of $2.65. He was excited and agreed. At the age of 14, a chef was born. Fortner was learning from the best chefs at the time, the “Michael Symon’s of the day,” he says, and has been working in professional kitchens ever since, including cooking during a stint in the Navy.
Chef Fortner holds an Associate in Applied Business, Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management from Cuyahoga Community College, and his professional mentor was Chef Richard Fulchiron. Chef Richard, as he liked to be called, was the first person to teach Tony a great deal about himself. Chef Richard wanted Tony to learn how to plan a menu, create recipes, size them and price them. He said that anyone can cook, but not everyone can create and plan a menu and run restaurant operations.
“He always seemed to be on my back,” Tony recalls. “It was because he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.” Chef Fulchiron sponsored Tony’s membership in the American Culinary Federation (ACF), an organization founded in 1929 in New York City to promote the professional image of American chefs. “Chef Richard took me to John Q’s downtown, and there were 45 white chefs there; I was the only Black one in the room,” Tony says. “They treated me with so much respect, and always addressed me as ‘Chef.’ It blew me away. I was the first Black person in Northeast Ohio to become a certified culinarian by the ACF in 2001.” He thinks about Chef Richard for a moment. “God puts people in your path to help you.”
As executive chef of popular Southern cuisine restaurants in Cleveland, Chef Tony developed the dishes that have become the standard for soul food around town. He has owned and/or was the executive chef for Angie’s, Jezebel’s Bayou, Stonetown, Chester’s, among others, and helped to open the exceedingly popular restaurant at Shaker Square, Zanzibar Soul Fusion.
“People thought we were a joke when we opened Zanzibar in 2009. One night in November, there was a snow storm, and a lady wandered in off the street. She asked us a bunch of questions about the place, and decided to stay to eat. We weren’t busy; I was reading a newspaper and my partner restaurateur Akin Affrica, was on his laptop. We thought she was a little strange,” he laughs. Chef Fortner prepared her meal, and she enjoyed it thoroughly. Two days later, the pair received a call from Cleveland Magazine.
“That lady who came in to eat during the snowstorm was one of the editors of Cleveland Magazine, and wanted to do a story on us for the next issue! After the story was published, Kenny Crumpton came in to do a feature, and the rest was history. We had an advertising budget of $1,500 – we didn’t need to spend a dime of it. Revenues were $1.1 million that first year, and we rode that wave of publicity for five years!” Tony says. “We were the first Black A-list restaurant in Cleveland, with our cutting edge Southern Fusion concept. Our unique fare included Walleye Cakes, a delicious alternative to Crab Cakes using fish unique to Lake Erie/Great Lakes; and Soul Rolls, a southern take on Chinese egg rolls.”
In 2016, Chef Tony, along with his longtime wife and business partner, Cynthia, opened Southern Café West on Detroit Avenue in Lakewood. “It was my twist on all of the restaurants that I wrote menus for as an executive chef – Zanzibar, Stonetown, Chester’s,” Chef Tony told Cleveland Scene not long after this location opened. Southern Café serves his signature fare, shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, soul rolls, fried perch sandwiches, and so much more.
Cynthia Fortner, Co-Owner and General Manager of Southern Cafe
The busy couple met through a mutual friend, and are the proud parents of six, dedicating Mondays to exclusive family time. In March of this year, the Fortners expanded their Southern Café restaurant by opening an eastside location (Southern Café East), on Kinsman Road in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. “We opened the eastside location on March 1. By March 18, we were shut-down due to COVID-19.” That was unfortunate timing, but Chef Tony believes that the eastside location will eventually surpass the westside location in revenues. “There is a large office building with 300 employees located nearby, and many of them had become regulars before the shutdown.” Both locations are still boasting strong carryout service, and Southern Café’s catering service does very well also.
The Fortners see their success as a way to leave behind a legacy, whether it be professional or personal. Tony offers this advice to anyone considering taking the entrepreneurial plunge: “I haven’t had a regular paycheck since 2006, so, don’t get discouraged when times get hard, because they will. Believe in your vision, even if no one else around you does, and you will succeed.”
For more information about Southern Café, visit their website, southerncafeohio.com
One of the dining rooms at the Lakewood location