In the seven months since Nick Sullivan ended a six-year run as chef de cuisine at 610 Magnolia, he’s grown used to the questions about why he or any chef would actually leave that dining temple, arguably the most nationally recognized restaurant in the city.
Sure, Sullivan toiled long hours in the humble kitchen of Edward Lee’s venerable Old Louisville restaurant. But he also got to ride Lee’s coattails to cook in Italy, Southeast Asia, the U.S.’s finest food and wine festivals and the James Beard House in New York. His association with 610 Magnolia even opened the door to a stage at Chicago’s famed Alinea restaurant, an experience he called “mindblowing.” Ninety-nine percent of Louisville’s chefs will never get the chance to enjoy such a collection of opportunities.
Yet working under Lee is demanding, a job made more difficult by the expansion-minded boss spending time away from 610 to open MilkWood in Louisville and Succotash in National Harbor, Md. Lee’s work on TV shows and a cookbook also kept him on the road. That was a mixed blessing Sullivan said allowed him to work on his own cooking style, but it placed enormous pressure on his shoulders.
Regardless of whether Lee was on premise at 610, Sullivan knew customers assumed “it was Edward’s food,” which kept the bar high for the kitchen crew. To cope with the pressure, Sullivan drank heavily, a coping mechanism that harmed the health of his body and his relationships with his boss and coworkers.
“I was really stuck, needing to take care of myself and trying to do the work that needed to be done, and I wore myself out,” Sullivan says quietly. “I realized I was not making myself available for the staff, to give them direction as a leader. I was telling them what to do, not managing them as a chef should.”
Sullivan knew his dream of owning a restaurant couldn’t materialize amid such personal strife, and Lee knew 610 deserved better leadership. When the two parted ways late last year, Sullivan wasn’t sure where he was headed, but he knew the break was the right move.
“I was stuck in a rut, simple as that,” says Sullivan, who logged eight total years in two stints at 610. “I came to terms with the fact that no matter how long I’d work for Edward, it was always going to be his restaurant. … And though I wanted to see my next move as my own place, that couldn’t happen right after I left.”
A few months before he left 610, Louisville’s ongoing chef shuffle was making a path for Sullivan to cook at The Oakroom. The September announcement that Harvest executive chef Coby Ming was headed to Wiltshire at The Speed Museum sent Harvest’s owners courting Oakroom chef de cuisine Patrick Roney as her replacement. When Roney announced in November he’d taken the job, Sullivan applied at The Oakroom to fill the void. It wouldn’t be his restaurant, but it would be a gig in one of Louisville’s finest.
“When the opportunity presented itself, I saw it as a stepping stone to learning things — like the hotel’s corporate structure — that would help me someday in my own place,” Sullivan says. It was also a chance “to hone my craft, to introduce my food.”
Without it being Edward’s food.
“(The Oakroom’s owners) could see that the food I was doing at 610 was essentially my influences,” he adds. “Now I’m doing the same things I was doing there, but pushing myself even harder.”
That means cooking what he describes as “progressive American cuisine with Southern roots and a worldly pantry from across the globe.”
It also means becoming a better leader.
“I’m really trying to manage in a different style: as more of a leader and less of a boss,” he says. “I’m challenging myself … by empowering them.”
As we talk at a table in The Oakroom, it’s easy for Sullivan to get caught up in its elegance. No one would disagree that it’s one of the city’s most beautiful dining spaces, that its history alone is worth a hundred stories, and that his culinary predecessors (Roney, Bobby Benjamin, Todd Richards, Duane Nutter, Michael Cuna and Jim Gerhardt) have set high standards he must follow. The array of AAA Five Diamond Awards hanging in The Oakroom’s entryway are constant reminders of the goals he must achieve to succeed here.
“The reputation is Five Diamonds, and there are a lot of things you need to do to attain that accolade,” Sullivan says. He allows that the most devilish of the details deemed significant by AAA lie on the service side of a review: standards for fresh flowers, dense napery, weighty silverware and delicate glassware. Server knowledge of the menu and wine list and table side panache are important, too, and boosting those qualities is where the kitchen comes in.
“It’s my job as a chef and a cook to help them talk about the dishes we prepare and fuse that with (The Oakroom’s) method of service,” Sullivan says. What AAA will penalize him for is repetition. “They want to see menu creativity and the chef pushing the envelope.”
How that’s fleshed out Sullivan-style is a blend of technique and taste, simple preparation but complex presentation.
“I think about putting things on plates that make you go, ‘Wow!’ — whether it’s a perfectly cooked piece of meat or a vegetable or a totally different texture you didn’t expect,” says Sullivan, a Sullivan University culinary school grad who also cooked at North End Café, The Flagship (now Rivue) and Corbett’s. “That takes a lot of attention to detail.”
While Sullivan’s desire to have his own restaurant is strong, he has no timetable for how long he’ll stay at The Oakroom. At the very least, he has multiple examples of great chefs who preceded him, men who burnished their reputations there before launching out on their own.
“That they are all first-rate chefs and pretty much guys who have a restaurant now speaks to the quality of people who’ve passed through that kitchen,” he says. “I see it as a great honor and privilege to spend some time here.”