Being a chef is all Ellen McCarty ever knew. After opening Science Hill Inn, a restaurant in Shelbyville, in the late 1980s with her parents, she spent her adult life cooking Southern-inspired fare.
That is, until last summer, when a battle with cancer forced her to to sell the business she helped run for four decades.
But, as of Feb. 16, when she will co-host a wine- and dessert-tasting event with friend and fellow chef Dean Corbett, she will officially be back and will begin looking to open another enterprise.
McCarty was initially diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer on Christmas Eve 2013. The prognosis was not good, but with treatment, she beat the cancer and continued working.
And then the cancer reappeared.
On top of that, she endured complications related to the illness, one of which required her to have surgery on her colon.
Proclaimed cancer-free yet again after undergoing more chemotherapy, she was found to have multiple cancerous spots this past July in her lungs, stomach and other places on her body. Science Hill closed shortly thereafter, with McCarty again fighting for her life. She is now cancer free and hopes it’s for the final time.
“I’m hoping that’s it,” she tells Insider. “It’s a nasty, nasty disease.”
As for Science Hill, her life’s work, however, she admitted, “It didn’t end the way I would have had it. It was bittersweet.”
Therefore, her official return, which will take place at MESA, a Collaborative Kitchen, located in New Albany, will likely seem like something of a rebirth — or at least a re-boot.
Yes, it’s a one-night dessert and wine event sponsored by Ballotin Chocolate Whiskey, but it signals an end to her latest struggle — her final chemo treatment is Jan. 19 — and the beginning of a new era in her career.
Corbett sounds as eager for the new start as his friend McCarty.
“She’s my hero,” he says. “She’s the strongest person I’ve ever met in my life. If she ever has a bad day, she doesn’t show it. I’ve never seen anything like it. You can’t imagine what she’s been through.”
McCarty began working in restaurants as a child when she helped out at her mother’s sandwich shop, a place called Scallion in Dupont Square. Her parents paid for her to go to the Culinary Institute of America, and when she finished, she went into business with them in opening Science Hill, set in an 1825 building that once housed a prep school.
Her mother, Donna Gill, was executive chef, while McCarty served as chef de cuisine.
“I figured I owed my parents,” she said, regarding coming back to Louisville to work with them. “They paid for my college education, so I figured I should pay them back. And there are not many places you can just jump into ownership.”
Science Hill Inn was known for its elegant dining room and Kentucky-centric menu, with items like fried chicken, shrimp and grits, hot browns, country ham, Benedictine and more, as well as Sunday brunches.
With cancer beaten for the third time, McCarty is looking to resume her career, although she is undecided on what that might look like. She might return to her roots with a sandwich shop, she says. She also said she’d like to get together with a like-minded chef or entrepreneur for a partnership.
While that remains to be decided, she’s happy to be back in the kitchen, especially considering it’s with her long-time friend.
McCarty says Corbett was one of the first people in the restaurant industry she met after returning home after college, and it was a fast friendship.
“We’ve been best friends ever since,” she says. “He’s one of the most talented men, with the most creative taste. He teaches me so much. When you work with other chefs, there’s that camaraderie and you just have fun. It always helps me to have a buddy. He feeds off you and you feed off him.”
Corbett recalls meeting McCarty on a bus trip with other chefs.
“Her laugh was so infectious that I literally fell in love with her,” he says. “We instantly bonded on that trip and have been really great, close friends ever since.”
Corbett says now that the cancer has again been beaten back, his hope is to renew the Sunday brunch menu from Science Hill at Equus and Jack’s Lounge, which he owns and where he serves as chef.
But first, the dessert event will be McCarty’s official return. What happens next remains to be seen, but she hopes to be back in business within the year.
When that happens, she says, she might employ her two teenage children to help, the way her mother did when McCarty was young.
“I’ll do what my mom and dad did, and my kids can work for me,” she says with a chuckle. “That’s why I had them — that and to cut the grass.”