Executive Chef Burns Sullivan shares what inspires him in and out of the kitchen through a Q&A with Alabama Media Group.
Lynn Grisare Fullman of the Birmingham, Ala.-based Alabama Media Group, recently sat down with Burns Sullivan, Executive Chef of Hoover Country Club, to ask questions ranging from favorite foods to cooking inspirations to favorite kitchen gadgets:
What is the Hoover Country Club restaurant’s specialty? We specialize in Southern cuisine and are focused on providing our guests with good, from-scratch cooking.
What sets your restaurant apart from others? We are truly a from-scratch kitchen. I think that the reputation of most country clubs is that they order in all their products pre-made. We are trying to break the mold of that reputation and really add an element of fine dining to club cuisine.
When did Hoover Country Club open? In the ’50s.
How long have you worked there? I have been the Executive Chef here for about four months.
Which meals do you serve daily? We serve lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday, breakfast on Saturday and brunch on Sunday.
Do you organize special events for members? Of course. My staff and I are always trying to come up with exciting events and dinners for our members to enjoy.
Is the restaurant ever open to the public? No, not normally, but I am trying to have a dinner every few months that is open to the public just to try to create some buzz for our restaurant. But our members are our top priority here.
What is the restaurant’s most popular entrée? Our Alabama hot chicken sandwich is currently our most popular item. House-brined chicken breast, fried then tossed in hot sauce, served on white bread with Duke’s mayo, white barbecue sauce, and our house-made bread-and-butter pickles.
What is the restaurant’s most popular side dish? We constantly change our side options, but our collard greens are always a crowd-pleaser.
What is the restaurant’s most popular dessert? Our dessert menu changes pretty frequently because we try to stay in the season; currently our apple crostata with a cinnamon-sugar streusel is our best seller.
What honors have your received? I recently won first place at Performance Food Group’s (PFG) South East Conference Food Show cooking competition. In a mystery basket challenge we were given 20 minutes to create a dish using all of the ingredients in our baskets. I made a pork roulade with a blueberry and Coke reduction, textures of asparagus crusted with potato chips and caramelized pineapple.
What’s new at the Hoover Country Club restaurant? Our fall menu came out about a month ago so our whole menu is new right now; we are in the process of doing some minor renovations in the kitchen.
Where did you grow up and attend school? I was born and raised in Athens, Ga., and lived there for the first 25 years of my life. After high school I attended Emmanuel College in North Georgia, pursuing a degree in biology.
Where did you work previously? I had the pleasure of working at Bottega on the fine-dining side. Getting to work with Chef (Frank) Stitt was a truly incredible experience; that restaurant is absolutely incredible from the service they provide to the talent in the kitchen.
What job would you have if you were not a chef? It would probably be something with music. Music has always played a big role in my life, and I always have it playing in my kitchens. Anything from Outkast to Elvis to Radiohead, we keep a very eclectic variety of music on hand.
Who inspired your love for cooking? My grandfather, Pop, was a great home cook and was always making something for someone. His work ethic and determination are what molded me as I grew up; after he died the kitchen was where I felt closest to him. Every day I use one of his old knives that I had re-handled.
Who is your mentor? My mom, Claire Nicholson. She is the strongest person I have ever met and instilled so many great qualities and lessons in my sister and me. She is just a selfless, humble woman who somehow managed to put up with my stubborn (bleep) and that in itself deserves a lot of credit.
What is best advice you were ever given? Having not gone to culinary school, my whole career has been based on the advice that was given to me by those I have worked with. But without a doubt, the best advice I was ever given came from my best friend and fiancé, she simply said, “Burns, keep it simple. Stop trying to over-complicate things.” I can’t tell you how much that advice has helped me throughout my career.
Do you have a first cooking memory? When I was 14, I got a job washing dishes at a little Italian restaurant that I could walk to from my house. They had me prep the cannoli every day. Just being around all those guys, yelling and screaming and rushing around while still putting up great food made me want to stay in the restaurant industry. There is truly nothing like the atmosphere in a well functioning kitchen, you either hate it or love it, and I couldn’t enjoy it anymore than I do.
What is your worst cooking disaster? The power went out overnight at a restaurant I worked at and by the time we got back the next day all of our coolers except the walk-in had climbed into the 50s. So we had to do a deep clean and re-prep the entire line before service that day.
Do you have a restaurant-related thing you’re the proudest of? I have had the pleasure for working for a few different chefs in a few different types of kitchen atmosphere. Adjusting to those different kitchens has really prepared me to handle most situations. I’m proud of the chefs I have worked for and the kitchens I’ve gotten to work in, but I’m very proud of myself for the knowledge I have been able to retain throughout my career.
Do you have a favorite type food to prepare? Southern cuisine is my passion, cooking the way my grandparents and great grandparents did. It’s very important to carry on their legacy and what better way than through food.
What is your favorite food to eat? I like it all; you can’t be a picky eater and work in this industry. As long as I’m eating with good friends I’m happy.
Do you have a favorite food-related website? I think Martha Stewart’s website is the bee’s knees. From recipe ideas to place settings; Martha’s got it going on.
What would you choose for your final meal? Egg noodles cooked in milk and chicken broth with Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing. It has to be Hidden Valley.
What is your favorite restaurant (other than your own)? The Branded Butcher in Athens, Georgia is an incredible restaurant. I learned a ton while I was there and the food they are putting out is outstanding. The guys there work incredibly hard and deserve all the credit they receive.
Who is the chef you most admire? Chef Matthew Palmerlee of The Branded Butcher. His cooking is simple, complex, beautiful and delicious, all the things that, in my opinion, make up a great dish. What I admire most about Matty is his humbleness and willingness to better those around him. He taught me a lot, and I can’t thank him enough for that.
Do you have a favorite spice? Ras el hanout is a Moroccan spice that I love to use. It’s made up of so many fine ingredients and just creates a very complex and unique taste.
What is your favorite herb? If I can chose only one it would have to be sage. Being a lover of pork, sage, to me, really accents pork beautifully.
Do you cook at home? I do cook a fair amount at home, especially if I’m off that day or get off early. Every now and then it’s nice to get to sit down and enjoy the food you’re making.
What is the kitchen gadget you couldn’t work without? My Robot Coupe. I use that thing for dressings, purees, mousse, whatever.
Do you have a kitchen gadget that has disappointed you? Being left-handed, can openers present a frustrating challenge for me. It takes me at least three tries to actually open a can.
What is your food or restaurant-related pet peeve? Bad service. I was a server briefly, long enough to know I never want to do that again. But I gained an immense amount of respect for the brave people who do wait tables. When we go out to eat and receive bad service at a restaurant it really ruins the entire experience no matter how great the food.
Do you have any advice for pulling off a last-minute meal? I can’t stress simplicity enough. Use what you have available to you at its peak season and stay true to the ingredients’ natural flavors.
What is your best cooking tip? Cook things that inspire you and evoke some sort of emotion. If you can see yourself and your influences in your dish then you can be proud of whatever you create.
Where will you be in 10 years? I will have been married to my best friend for nine years and hopefully starting our family. Professionally, all I can do is hope that I will be working with a great crew, putting out food that I believe in and working at a restaurant that wants the same things.
Any final thoughts? Thank you to my fiancé Julianne, my family, my friends and my co-workers past and present for their support, encouragement and inspiration.