BELOIT — When Beloit Memorial Hospital’s Executive Chef of Hospitality Services Tom Sullivan was asked to build a menu around a theme of “growing together,” he decided to offer bison tenderloin stuffed with turnip greens and pheasant.
After all, bison and pheasant graze together. To recreate their grassland
habitat, he sprinkled a base of microgreen chives.
Despite having to come up with new annual meeting dinner ideas each year since 1999, Sullivan never runs out of recipes or passion. His menus are like a runway fashion show of foods, complete with color, taste and a story to tell.
Sullivan and his staff not only prepare food for West Hart Café on the third floor of the hospital, but for the 550 to 700 people ordering from the patient menu. The hospital also offers a private celebrity dinner for new moms before they are discharged with their new babies. To offer more variety the Café has gone from offering a two-week cycle of food to an eight-week cycle.
Many of the West Hart Café creations must be modified to accommodate low sodium, cholesterol or potassium diets, or gluten-free requirements. No matter the challenge, Sullivan meets it. He can tailor everything from Irish lamb stew to mango salsa over salmon to each dietary need.
The mounting responsibilities don’t seem to daunt Sullivan, who is known in the Café for his hearty laughter and what he calls “the corniest jokes alive.”
“I am a happy guy. I work in a job I love, with people I really feel a connection with,” he said. “You never work a day in your life if you love what you do. I’m not even working, and they pay me anyway.”
Sullivan’s culinary creations and exuberant personality started in his family kitchen where he was one of eight children in a big Irish Catholic family in Oak Park, Illinois.
“My mother would do miracles with very little,” he said. “You knew we were really scraping it when it was corn fritters.”
Sullivan said his mother taught him how to look in the refrigerator or pantry to see what’s available, and how to make it go further.
Sullivan first took his skills to a sandwich parlor in Rockford. When he started working at Jungle Jim’s in 1978 he learned scratch baking and how to make soups and sauces.
“If you are going to be a good cook, you have to make a good sauce,” he said.
He worked his own catering business and ran his own restaurant, Sullivan’s Bakery and Cafe, for a time. He later cooked for the customers and international visitors of the former Beloit Corp. After he got his one-month notice that Beloit Corp. was going to close, he applied for the position at Beloit Memorial Hospital.
Soon he was making his own creations such as cinnamon pineapple pork and cherry chipotle flank steak. While working on a chorizo and chicken soup, he stumbled upon some extra avocado to incorporate into the recipe for a new twist on the offering.
With the need to keep flavor while adjusting to dietary restrictions of the hospital he learned to rely more on fresh herbs.
“The best trick is to taste and correct, and taste it again,” he said.
One of the highlights of his job over the years has been preparing for the Beloit Health System annual meeting and its themes.
Last year’s Chicago neighborhood theme was in honor of Beloit Health System’s President and CEO Timothy McKevett. Sullivan featured bookbinder soup, grilled swordfish with lemon butter sauce and maduros with spicy black beans and yellow rice, to name a few.
For this year’s theme, growing together, he made sure all the pairings on the plate grew up together, such as king crab and king salmon with an avocado lemon puree.
“They come from the same waters off the Alaskan coast,” he said.
For dessert, Sullivan designed a tiramisu pie, complete with mascarpone cheese, ladyfingers, brewed and cooled espresso coffee, Kahlua, Hershey’s milk chocolate, vanilla pudding, cocoa powder and more.
It’s not the first time Sullivan and cook and baker Tina Crusan came up with sweet culinary creations in the kitchen. West Hart Café has also been home to a Ho Hos cake and Snickers dessert.