James Beard Award Finalist and Food & Wine Best New Chef Julia Sullivan, is just getting started.
“I always tell people that when I was growing up here in Nashville there wasn't a lot going on,” Chef Julia Sullivan laughs.
“But I think more has changed since 2013, when I came back to now, than even in the 10 years before,” she says, still smiling. “It’s the reason I came home, I really felt like it was a great place to carve something out for myself.”
Sitting in a booth in the corner of her restaurant, Henrietta Red, it’s hard to believe all that she’s saying, so simply put, but she insists that it’s all true. Natural light floods the open, intricately designed space, and as she looks outside on the snow-trodden streets, she spots a delivery driver, waiting outside in the cold. She lets him in, signs for the produce, and sits back down in the sunlight.
In one of the most rapidly changing cities in the United States, Henrietta Red has served as a beacon of excellence and stability. The quality of food, service, hospitality, helped usher in a new era of dining in the city, one that has blended traditional southern cuisine with understated refinement.
The restaurant in many ways, is a perfect reflection of the Chef herself. There’s something unsuspecting and humble about its white brick walls and open kitchen plan, about the ease with which subtleties are expressed on the menu.
“I was really intent on opening the kind of restaurant that I would want to eat in,” Chef Sullivan says. “Of course, when I was living in New York, working at Per Se and Stone Barns, there were endless options, but here in Nashville it felt like you were kind of confined to just a couple different categories.”
Her menu is a showcase of how beautifully Southern cuisine can blend with fine dining. Take for example, the oyster bar, now one of the city’s, and region’s preeminent spots. By sourcing bivalves from across the country, and Canada, shipped to the restaurant overnight, each one, depicts a different story, profile, and sense of place. Whether that’s the creaminess of Vancouver, the brininess of the Atlantic, or the mild taste of the Gulf, it’s all here.
Oysters turned out to be one of her favorite things to discuss, and she mentions how Henrietta Red works with an organization called Oyster South which supports the Southern Oyster Industry to get more of the water-filtering organisms into the water.
But she doesn’t stop at oysters, either. There is plenty of room to play in her dinner menu, paired wisely with a reliable brunch that keeps people coming back again and again. “I really wanted it to be a place where women would come for brunch, but then create a dinner menu where we’d experiment and get creative and challenge people.”
Upon opening in 2017, Henrietta was flooded with acclaim. It was named Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurant, written up in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and plenty more, and to top it all off, Chef Sullivan was soon named one of the country’s best chefs in 2018.
Now in its fifth year, Henrietta Red continues to push the boundaries of food in Nashville. The menu remains focused on sustainably sourced and raised seafood and vegetables (the oysters being the one key exception, although oysters are pretty great for the environment in their own right). Chef Sullivan cites Stone Barns as inspiration, although notes, “Creating what they do for a local business isn’t really feasible, but we try.”
For example, Chef Sullivan worked to create a garden in her backyard where she grows and sources ingredients for the restaurant. “We have four 10x4 foot beds raised with trellises where we grow tomatoes and squashes, and it’s great to have during the summertime,” she explains.
In addition, Henrietta Red gets most ingredients from a local food hub called Nashville Grown that aggregates from about 30 to 40 different local farms. She also insists on composting oyster shells, and other food scraps from the restaurant, despite the overhead it creates. “It’s always kind of a punch in the gut, especially for a small business to have to pay for that cost,” she says, “but you know, I think it’s important to speak with your dollars.”
By creating delicious food that betters her surroundings, she allows others to do the same. Whether it’s the gulf shrimp linguine, a beautiful mélange of southern flavor, or the shaved kale salad with Calabrian chiles, which almost tastes like pasta in its own right, or even the roasted oysters, filled with green curry or salsa matcha, each dish is listed with a reserved simplicity on the menu, yet when it arrives, it is filled with an understated complexity. It doesn’t brag, but perhaps it should.
Even as Nashville continues to grow, Chef Sullivan wonders about the sustainability of the future. “All of these people moving here have been great for business,” she says, “we have a lot of tourism and a lot of awesome regulars.” However, the challenges that bring are always in front of mind. “But I think some things that are good for the restaurant industry aren’t great for the quality of life for the people who live here. And as someone from here, I’m conflicted about it.”
As her staff trickles in for dinner prep, they all greet her with a nod and a firm but quiet “chef.” One fills a giant cutting board with onions and shallots, slicing them evenly. Another looks over a list in the back, ensuring everything is in order. As the sun sets, tables are decorated with candles and delicate bouquets, and as the guests arrive, ice is dumped into the oyster bar among heaps of shells ready to be shucked.
It’s a perfectly orchestrated dinner party every single night, and conducting it all, right in frame, is Chef Sullivan, dutifully making sure every detail is precise, perfect, just as it should be.