Started From the Bottom

Now Chef Kevin Sullivan pushes culinary boundaries

Photography by Kim Thomas

Curiosity, creativity, and commitment are what set Chef Kevin Sullivan apart. “I’m my own competition,” he says. 

There’s no doubt that Kevin is one of the hardest working men in the restaurant business. Most days you can find him in Tsunami’s kitchen, where he is the lead chef, or chef de cuisine, of Cooper-Young’s beloved Pacific-rim restaurant. Kevin began his culinary journey at Tsunami as a humble dishwasher in the summer of 2002, when he was just 19 years old. What started as a summer job soon became a career.  

Tsunami chef and owner Ben Smith has been a mentor and friend to Kevin over the years.

“Kevin worked his way up the ranks out of sheer curiosity,” says Ben.

“He watched me cut the fish every day. Then he’d start to ask questions like, ‘What kind of fish is that?’ Then he would recognize what each fish was, and would then ask additional questions specifically about each fish.”

Over the years, Kevin climbed Tsunami’s ladder, eventually earning the lead chef position. “There’s something really magic about our collaboration,” says Ben. “It has fed into our longevity. I love the fact that we have a good rapport even after 20 years.”

Working at Tsunami has given Kevin the creative license to explore unusual combinations. “I don’t like sticking to a rigid structure. That is not how I was raised,” he says. 

When Kevin was a child, his grandmother was her church’s go-to person for delicious desserts and other food. Drawing inspiration from her recipes, Kevin fearlessly experiments in the kitchen.

“You want to take people on a taste journey,” he explains. 

At Tsunami there are always two menus. One menu is static and unchanging for the regulars who can’t stand to see their favorites go. The other changes weekly and features seasonally inspired small plates.

Tsunami sources many fresh ingredients from local farmers and has a longstanding relationship with two prominent fresh seafood companies. At this writing, the weekly small plates menu includes sake steamed mussels with Thai red curry sauce, seared tuna on rice pilaf with drunken fruit, roasted salmon with peach salsa, and seared sea scallops with smoked tomato beurre blanc.

When Kevin sets out to create a new dish, he considers texture, flavors, and colors. He wants to take you on an adventure with each bite. Starting with the basics, Kevin selects an ingredient and contemplates its texture. If it’s mushy, he pairs it with something crunchy or silky smooth. Then he moves onto flavors. He tends to pair salty with sweet to create a contrast so each bite forces you to consider both flavors. Kevin also likes to have a visually appealing plate, so he experiments with many different colors to provide depth and boldness to the experience.

On Saturday mornings, you’ll likely find Kevin and Ben on the Tsunami patio. The two of them (and sometimes others) sell prepared foods at the weekly Tsunami Chef’s Market. Kevin prepares dishes like glazed cornbread and buttermilk ice cream to elevate a Southern staple, black-eyed pea hummus that’ll make you hum with delight, and Asian spice wings that bring a fiery fusion to your plate. 

The market is so popular that it might become more than a once-a-week offering. “We are considering doing an in-house shop where people can come in and shop for prepared soups, sauces, vinaigrettes, etc. It’s been talked about, but it hasn’t gone anywhere yet. It’s not on the back burner, but on a burner on a slow simmer,” explains Ben.

Kevin also has a side business, Ki Kitchen, that offers catering, special pop-up dinners, farmers market subscription boxes, and meal prep for any diet. You’ll find him at special events like Project Green Fork’s Loving Local, partnering with other local chefs for special dinners, promoting friends in the industry through his networks, and looking for new opportunities to add to the landscape of things to do and eat in Memphis. 

“Another day, another dollar,” he says.

This July, Tsunami is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a series of Monday night wine dinners featuring guest chefs, two of whom were former employees.  In August, Kevin is partnering with Jazmine Coke—a Tsunami coworker and farmer—for a farm-to-table dinner experience.

Wherever Kevin, Ben, and the Tsunami team head in the next 25 years, they’ll keep that same curiosity, creativity, and commitment that have seen them through the first 25 years. 

“We’ve managed to push the envelope of creativity to bring new things to the table, and that’s what keeps things interesting,” says Ben.

928 S. Cooper

Kevin Sullivan

Ashanti Holder is on a delicious mission to uncover and share the wonders of local restaurants in Memphis and beyond. As an adventurous eater, she gravitates towards dishes that spark conversations. She savors the flavors of life, one delectable adventure at a time! @ajeatslocal

Kim Thomas is a lifestyle blogger and photographer based in Memphis. Launched in September 2010, her blog, KP Fusion, provides of-the-moment fashion, style, and beauty tips and trends with a little Memphis flavor thrown in. @kpfusion