Lili Sullivan moved from Toronto to the countryside six years ago, and she hasn’t looked back
The paucity of fine-dining restaurants in Sudbury, Ont., didn’t drown out Lili Sullivan’s dreams of becoming a chef. Sure, she was five at the time and making mud-pies in her makeshift backyard restaurant, but even then, the call of kitchen was much too strong to deny.
“All my friends had an Easy Bake oven, but my family couldn’t afford to get me one,” says Sullivan, over the phone from bucolic Wellington, Ont., in Prince Edward County, where’s she’s executive chef of East & Main Bistro. “So I made mud-pies or ice-carvings, depending on the season.”
Eventually she moved into her mother’s kitchen, and began mixing whatever she could get her hands on. “It was pretty gross at first, but then I started reading recipes. And, since we were immigrants, my sister and I were doing a lot of cooking and cleaning anyway.”
But for the 48-year-old mother of two, preparing meals for her Slavic parents was about more than chores. “I liked food. My mother made fresh bread, and we only had butter in the house. We ate good cheeses like havarti. My dad fished — he was a union man — and would come home with a cooler full. Every fish I ate as a child had a head. I’d never even seen a filleted fish before I started working professionally.”
That first job came on the catering side of the business after Sullivan had transferred out of the CA program at McMaster University and, ultimately, graduated from culinary school at George Brown College. She had interviewed at Scaramouche back in 1982, when Michael Städtlander and Jamie Kennedy were first there, but she couldn’t afford to work for nothing. “My catering job was paying me $6 an hour, which was more than twice what many other places were offering back then,” she laments.
A tough break, many would assume, to miss out on working with these future Ontario culinary trailblazers at a top Hog-town restaurant, but Sullivan didn’t stop to think about it. She kept working hard wherever her catering gig took her and, later, at the Dunfield Club in uptown Toronto, where she was forced to learn how to run a kitchen by herself. “The entire management team had walked out, so I walked in and all I had was a phone book,” she recalls. “I had to hire and fire, order and do inventory, and cook. It was quite the experience.”
Sullivan spent five years there, mastering the art of food costing, but she still yearned to really learn how to cook. When an opening surfaced at Peter Oliver’s Auberge du Pommier, she leapt at the chance, even though she was somewhat over-qualified for the position. She’d stay there for five years — meeting her husband, a young chef named Michael Sullivan, on the job — before leaving to be head chef at one of Oliver’s other restaurants, the aptly named Oliver’s, a Toronto dining institution at the time.
“Lili worked with us when there were far fewer women in kitchens than there are today,” says Peter Oliver, co-owner and founder of Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants. “What I remember was her strong work ethic; that nothing came in the way of getting the job done. She was also very committed to quality. I still remember a smoked salmon crème brûlée she made for me once. And she’s very determined. I recall when we first started goal-setting as part of our management, she was dogged and methodical about getting the job done. She outperformed most of the others in the achievement of their goals. That kind of person is valuable in any organization.”
The quality of mentorship Sullivan received from Oliver was not lost on her either. “I appreciated him. And he’ll be the first person to tell you he can be difficult, but he was a business man, and people don’t get that. All they see is that the room is full of customers — they don’t see that there are bills to pay. He was an excellent business man and a motivator. And while everyone else might have thought his constant management technique was a bit dorky, I liked his vision. He was a visionary.”
Sullivan also worked with chef Steve Treadwell for five years, and she learned a great deal from him, too. Together, they put out the seasonal, regional dishes that are on everyone’s radar today, except they didn’t advertise it. And, when Sullivan left to be chef at the Rebel House Tavern in 1993, staying on for seven years, she didn’t boast about her locavore sensibilities either. “I’ve always been the Kitchen Goddess, before Nigella came along,” she jests. “I cook seasonally — that’s just the way I have always done it.” Even in Toronto, she knew farmers, many of whom she would meet each year at Feast of Fields [Sullivan was a board member for nine years].
Today, her local stance is hard to miss on the menu at East & Main, thanks to some great relationships she’s formed with local growers and producers. “I know them all by name, here in the County. Last year, we opened in August, and up until November I didn’t have to buy anything from a grocery store,” she says.
And at Bistro & Main, her unfussy, honest, flavourful fare is getting rave reviews. Sullivan says the pan crisp arctic char, with quinoa pilaf, vegetables and Huff Chardonnay beurre blanc ($24) is a real crowd pleaser, and she’s quick to recognize the local wine she uses in her sauce. In fact, her ribeye and frites comes with Norman Hardy Pinot Noir and fresh herb butter and the Little Creek Farm’s half chicken is drizzled with a Trumpour’s Mill Pinot Noir and rosemary jus. It’s a great way to tie in the wine producers in the region, who are a major draw for many visitors.
“Business has been really good since we opened. We’ve had tremendous support in Wellington from the B&B’s and the wineries. People come in who are from Niagara and Toronto, because Norm Hardie sends them over,” she says, adding that she loves living in a small town. Her husband is the executive chef at the nearby Merrill Inn.
So does it ever get competitive living in a two-chef home? “Well, if we were ever there, it might be an issue,” she says laughing. “But our kids are 14 and 11, so they are feeding and babysitting themselves. And neither my husband nor I have an ego. We work too hard to have to deal with bullshit like that.”
Photography by Roger Yip