When Kevin Sullivan started working at Tsunami in Cooper-Young, he was a senior at Northside High School, content to bus tables for his summer job. In those 10 years, encouragement from Tsunami owner Ben Smith and Sullivan's own curiosity transformed a summer gig into a culinary career.
"I was in such a nurturing environment that I stuck with it," Sullivan says. "Over time, cooking has just become more and more of who I am."
Earlier this year, he began working up recipes for a catering and personal chef business, Ki Kitchen. Ki is Japanese for "soul," and Sullivan describes his cuisine as Asian-soul food fusion borne out of his experience with Pacific Rim dishes at Tsunami and his upbringing at a distinctly Southern table.
"Black-eyed pea hummus was my first idea, because it's something I haven't heard a lot about," he says. "Growing up, black-eyed peas were a staple, so I wanted to take that and do something fresh with it."
At first, he was a little wary about taking his new brand of Southern food back home with him.
"I thought my family wouldn't be open to me changing the preparation of the black-eyed peas," he says. "But they loved it. And now I've been talking with my mom and my aunt about what my grandmother used to prepare. We've been getting back to our roots, so it's been a revival within my own family. It's bringing us together."
To black-eyed pea hummus, Sullivan has since added tomato jam, chow chow, collard green kimchee, Andouille sausage with risotto and red pepper coulis, pasta salads, and cornbread crostinis. He began selling his hummus at the Tsunami Winter Farmers Market to get his name out to potential clients. His tomato jam is available at Stone Soup Cafe, and he's already got some catering gigs under his belt.
"I imagine that at the apex of it all, I'll have a restaurant where I do dinner service and still do catering gigs on the side," he says. "I just want to make good food more accessible. A lot of people think the more elegant the food is, the more it's out of their reach. I want to get back to where food brings everyone together."
If this chef-philosopher sounds like a far cry from the Sullivan of 10 years ago, a teenager not so much interested in cooking as a summer paycheck, it's because he has dedicated years to learning from those around him.
In addition to Ben Smith, Sullivan counts Marisa Baggett, the Southern sushi chef, among his chief influences. While serving as her apprentice, Sullivan learned about more than sushi rolls. He credits her with teaching him about self-promotion and discovering his independence as a chef.
"I kind of fell into it," he says of his career. "I started peeling potatoes and washing dishes, then moved on to mussels and calamari and shrimp, then making salads and desserts, and then finally progressed to the grill. I became curious about the food and started asking questions, and eventually they promoted me and allowed me to prepare foods."
For those interested in working with Sullivan, or, he says, just sparking up a casual conversation about food, his Facebook page (www.facebook.com/chefsullivan) is a surefire way to reach him. Or you can email him at email@example.com.
Ki Kitchen's menu is on the Facebook page as well. All selections cost between $4 and $5.