As many readers already know, Nick Sullivan died unexpectedly earlier this week. He was only 39 years old, and had just celebrated his birthday in January.
Nick Sullivan; photo by Dan Dry.

At the time of Nick’s passing, he was employed as Executive Chef at Louisville Marriott Downtown, a job coming on the heels of a stint at The 1894 Lodge Neighborhood Bar & Grill in New Washington, Indiana.

That’s where F&D found him in early 2021, and an excerpt from the article that followed appears below.

Nick’s local ports of call included Corbett’s An American Place, 610 Magnolia, The Oakroom at The Seelbach Hotel, Anoosh Bistro, Fork & Barrel and the Turf Club at Churchill Downs.

In 2012, the web site declared Nick to be one of the “Top 5 Rising Chefs in the U.S.,” but when I spoke with him in New Washington in late 2020 while preparing our feature, he sounded like a chef at the crossroads, karmic and cognizant, preferring to talk at length about teaching and mentoring the next generation of culinary professionals as his next career act, rather than another round of pursuing the limelight.

I think he meant it. There’ll be no way of knowing what Nick might have done next, and that’s sad. However, to judge from the testimonials proffered by his younger and more recent kitchen co-workers, there exists a cohort that didn’t read the press clippings, and will remember Chef Nick as an educator.

My hunch is this would delight Nick immensely. He also would appreciate these words from fellow chef Michael Hargrove, who posted at Facebook and has given me permission to include his thoughts here.

I can’t say I was close with, or friends with Nick Sullivan, but I did witness him do something that forever earned my utmost respect.

We both participated in a cooking competition some years back, two-man teams, floor judges, etc., scored and judged like a ACF professional competition.

Day of, early morning, we’re all getting set up, and Nick rolls in alone. His partner bailed on him.

Nick hauled in his gear, set it up and completed the entire event, 2-3 hours of cooking if I remember correctly. He worked his ass off. He didn’t seem rushed or appeared flustered at all, and put up some really good plates.

For one man to finish a competition like that, on time, is nearly impossible. He was 10-ish minutes off the mark. When it was all done he broke down, cleaned up, and hauled out his gear on his own.

Some wouldn’t have bothered to get out of bed. In fact one team didn’t even show up. It took a lot of guts, integrity and professionalism to do what Nick did, it said a lot about him. I’ll never forget it.

R.I.P. Chef

That’s the crux of a chef’s sweat equity, isn’t it?

Here’s an excerpt from the aforementioned F&D profile. Nick subsequently parted ways with The 1894 Lodge, which is going strong, and yet I won’t soon forget his obvious enthusiasm for the team-building taking place during his tenure there. He was proud of it, and had a right to be.

Heartfelt condolences to Nick’s family and friends.

Nick Sullivan (left) with Logan Hostettler (right) at The 1894 Lodge, early 2021. Photo by Dan Dry.

It was a mid-afternoon on a Saturday in December, and 1894’s youthful employees shuffled in for the evening shift. As we chatted, Sullivan paused occasionally to offer them direction. He and (owner Logan) Hostettler share an obvious commitment to coach and teach.

“The team here at 1894 is very small,” begins Sullivan. “We have high school kids. But the staff now has been here for three years, and when you start out at 14 washing dishes, and you’ve got a 16-year-old on the fryer who comes in when he’s done with school work, it’s cool they can be really successful at such a young age.”

Sullivan has enjoyed success; he also enjoys paying it forward. “Teaching from the ground up is something I’m good at, as I’ve learned over the years,” he says. “It might be frustrating at times, but it’s me giving back, at this point. Teaching’s always been part of me, but now I know I’m good at it.”

Genial and relaxed in conversation, Sullivan retains a palpable intensity masked by a casual outward appearance. Sullivan’s cognitive wheels can be surmised to be spinning, hence his oft-repeated answer to questions about his cooking approach:

“I really appreciate attention to detail, and I appreciate the small, minute things that are easily overlooked.”

Now 38, Sullivan already has attained the status of grizzled Louisville dining scene veteran. He moved here from his home town of Jackson, Tennessee in 2001 to attend Sullivan University (no relation), enrolling in three programs: Culinary Arts, Hotel/Restaurant Management and Baking/Pastry Arts programs. It was a huge leap into the unknown.

“My only restaurant experience prior to that was in a Pizza Hut,” Sullivan recalls, but in 2004, with those three associate degrees tucked inside his apron, he quickly commenced a dizzying upward career trajectory.

“Right out of the gate, I got a job at the Galt House. It was the Flagship, working with Richard Lewis, who was part of the old Dean Corbett brigade back in the day,” he says, followed by an 18-month gig with Corbett himself as sous chef at the veteran chef’s namesake An American Place, then five years as the executive chef at 610 Magnolia as Edward Lee’s right-hand man.

Sullivan’s tenure with Lee took him to South Korea, Italy and Malaysia, as well as to food festivals across the United States. He appeared on Lee’s “The Mind of a Chef” series and cooked frequently at The James Beard House.

Consequently explained its “rising chef” accolade: “Sullivan goes way beyond mint juleps and barbecue. In fact, he’s bringing deep imagination and the most modern techniques of molecular gastronomy to the Southern table, all without sacrificing tradition. He (takes) up the challenge of marrying contemporary cooking techniques with Southern ingredients and old-time hospitality.”

It still fits. Sullivan departed 610 Magnolia in 2015 to become Chef de Cuisine at The Oakroom at The Seelbach Hotel; after subsequent brief stints at Anoosh Bistro and Fork & Barrel, he became Chef de Cuisine at the Turf Club at Churchill Downs, cherishing the opportunity to work with David Danielson.

“I truly enjoyed my time there, learning what it meant to serve the volume of people with greater ingredients and attention to detail, elevating and turning the dining room around 180 degrees, to where members really noticed a huge positive change. With staff, it was training them to do volume, refining techniques and doing small things on a massive level.”

COVID-19 put an end to massive levels, as well as Sullivan’s employment. Preparing for his third Kentucky Derby, “things hit the fan with the outbreak. I’d been with the Turf Club for a while, then I found myself out of a job, and really dying to get back to it.”

(Chef Dallas) McGarity’s role as employment concierge brought Sullivan and Hostettler together. They immediately hit it off. While some might think The 1894 Lodge is a step backwards, for Sullivan, he vigorously disagrees, seeing New Washington as the most logical locale for moving forward amid his ongoing personal dialogue about what being a chef really means.

Sullivan has considered his place in the lineage of Louisville chefs, from the “old guard” (Corbett, Lewis, Anoosh Shariat, Pen Looi, et al) through their successors, the younger “guns” influenced by Anthony Bourdain and our contemporary era, characterized with 24-7-365 saturation coverage of culinary matters.

Finding resonance in numerous influences, old and new, Sullivan’s detail-driven work ethic has led him to reject any lingering desire to be a “rock star chef.” Rather, it’s the fundamentals propelling him to pass the torch.

“Notoriety doesn’t appeal to me, and neither does that lifestyle. At 1894 I have an opportunity to really focus on the details. I feel like maybe I lost sight of real passion, what the kitchen was for me, which is touching everything and fine-tuning it.

“It’s not just about me. It’s about us as a team, and growing that.”

Sullivan shares Hostetter’s vision, embraces the history of the surroundings and extols the possibilities for the family’s businesses.

“We have the farm for an event space, and also the ability to grow our own herbs and produce, and to raise some of our own animals. I like that aspect right now.”

“It’s bringing in the new trends in food, pushing the envelope in textures and playfulness, but still keeping roots in what our culture is, the Southern influence. My past with Edward Lee, with Korean and playing with the different Asian flavors – I’ve really gained a huge world palette because of it, but I still have my foundation in Southern soul food. That’s my style of food.”

I asked Sullivan which menu item best reflects this style, and he didn’t hesitate.

“I have a Pork Belly Shrimp and Grits, a foundation of shrimp and grits but with pork belly added. It’s a fun new approach, with olives, apple, and a red curry gastrique. You don’t expect all these together, necessarily, but it works and it’s fun. It’s been getting a lot of traction.”

Yet one of Sullivan’s most popular dishes at The 1894 Lodge is a throwback to the Flagship, where he began.

“Getting back to the new guard versus the old guard, I have a dish that I learned from Richard Lewis. It’s Chicken Piccata, and it’s on the menu right now. This and the pork belly are both huge sellers right now. It’s the old and new influences coming together.”