Hometown Chef Julia Sullivan of Henrietta Red
Julia Sullivan’s love affair with oysters may have begun in New Orleans, but the first oyster she ever tasted was right here in landlocked Nashville, at Rainbow Key, a once-popular restaurant located in Belle Meade. She was ten years old. “I remember going there with my parents as a kid,” says Julia, who last year opened Henrietta Red, an award-winning oyster bar and seasonal-focused restaurant in Germantown. She’s one of just a handful of local chefs whose earliest food memories are rooted in Nashville—or old Nashville, as it were, back when the Gulch was an abandoned railroad yard, hot chicken was anything but hot, and Germantown was known to most locals as the site of Octoberfest, and little else.
Julia graduated from University School in 2001, the same year that Margot opened in East Nashville. “Deb Parquette was already established, but most of the chefs and restaurants we consider fixtures in Nashville opened in the last decade,” Julia explains. Henrietta Red (which is named after Julia’s grandparents) was barely even a twinkle in her teen-aged eye then, as she left home to study at Tulane and later went on to Culinary School in New York. And yet, a part of her always knew she would end up back home someday. “That was probably the one part of my vision that never changed,” she says, “although the city changed dramatically around it.”
That she followed through on that vision not only says a lot about Julia’s drive and determination, but about the city as well. Her cooking career began at a market in New Orleans, but it wasn’t long before she was working her way through some of the most prestigious kitchens in New York, including Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Per Se. “After Per Se, I took a departure and cooked at a rustic Italian restaurant in Brooklyn called Franny’s. Franny’s completely changed the way I cook. It really taught me about ingredient driven cuisine, seasonality, simplicity, and seasoning.”
Those lessons are evident in every dish on Henrietta Red’s menu—from the sustainably farmed oysters, which are shipped in from all three coasts six days a week, to “Poppy’s Caviar,” a fanfavorite dish inspired by a recipe Julia’s dad used to make, featuring local paddlefish roe (her dad used cheap tins from Kroger).
As for what it’s like to look out at the dining room and see so many familiar faces night after night? “I feel so supported by the city and the people I grew up with. I honestly can’t imagine doing it anywhere else.”