SEEN sat down with Brandon O’Sullivan, 31, Detroit Taco’s general manager and chef, who led the restaurant’s expansion in Troy. He shares his journey from cooking rookie to chef and how his restaurant gives back.
By Cassie Kunze
Photography by Davey McLeod
1. Where are you from?
I was born and raised across various parts of Metro Detroit, but never in the city proper.
2. What was your favorite dish to cook growing up?
As a matter of fact, I never cooked, not even a little bit, with any success, until I was around 19 years old. My grandmother gifted me a book titled “College Idiot’s Guide to Cooking” for my 17th birthday because of some pretty famous failures of mine in the kitchen.
3. Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
It wasn’t until I had mastered a few kitchen jobs, working my way up from dishwasher to prep, then wok cook at a Chinese restaurant, then as a grill cook at a Texas Roadhouse, that I discovered I really loved cooking and feeding people. It was then that I started taking over holiday meals with the family.
4. What was your first job?
My first job was bagging groceries at the late, great Farmer Jacks a few days after my 14th birthday.
5. When did you start cooking professionally?
Once I discovered my passion for cooking, I set my sights on a real from scratch kitchen, Andiamo. After getting the job, though very unqualified, I was very fortunate to be taken under the wing of a few talented chefs and cooks in that kitchen. My chef would give me homework assignments every night to bridge the gap in my learning. The sous chef and head cook put me through the fire, teaching me to be a machine on a hot line. If not for all of this guidance, my life would look very different right now.
6. Have you worked for any restaurants in Metro Detroit?
Other than Andiamo, I worked at Toasted Oak in Novi, Gold Cash Gold in Detroit, Livernois Tap in Ferndale and had a stint in the corporate chef life for the Rojo Restaurant Group.
7. Who inspires you professionally?
Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago has always been up there on the list; he occupies a completely different league of cooking. As far as people I have met and worked with, Branden Edwards of Gold Cash Gold is easily one of the most talented, and arguably the most knowledgeable chef I have had the pleasure of working alongside.
8. When did you meet your business partner Jeffrey Omtvedt?
Jeffrey was a general manager at Andiamo Livonia, my first serious kitchen. We have worked together on many other projects and businesses since then.
9. What inspired you to start Detroit Taco Company?
Jeffrey, actually, started Detroit Taco Company. When he made the decision to expand, he called me up and knew that I was the right guy to head the expansion, train and systematize each location before moving on to the next.
10. If you could describe Detroit Taco Company in one word, what would it be?
11. What inspired you to incorporate Día de Los Muertos into the restaurant’s design?
It is an important day in Mexican culture about remembering those we’ve lost and appreciating what we have. It is an idea that rings very true for both Jeffrey and myself, and fits right into the culture we are trying to sculpt within our business. Also, so far, it has been the grand opening of both our Royal Oak and Troy locations.
12. Can you tell us more about the Meaningful Monday Dining for Dollars initiative?
Every Monday we partner up with different charities, mostly local and a few with a much larger scope that are important to us, and donate 20 percent of the restaurant’s proceeds to that organization. It is a staple of our business, and our main way to give to the community. With Meaningful Mondays, Taco 2uesdays, (all solo tacos just $2), Fiesta Thursdays (all fiestas just $6) and Sunday Funday (to-go family packs 10 Tacos for $10), Jeffrey really built the giving back right into our business. It is why our tagline is “Change Our Community One Taco At A Time.”
13. What organizations have you worked with through the initiative?
Make A Wish Foundation, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Pingree Farms, National MS Society, Downtown Boxing Gym, Boys & Girls Clubs, Detroit Dog Rescue and Gleaner’s, to name a few.
14. What are your top three favorite items on the Detroit Taco Company menu?
I love a good bowl. I just like to mix everything together, squeeze some fresh lime on it and eat it with chips. The Mexican rice, grilled chicken and guacamole are very good. As far as our salsas, our chipotle salsa and our diablo salsa go on everything I eat in the restaurant.
15. What is the biggest challenge in starting your own business?
Finding and training the right kind of talent and building the right culture, first among the employees, and then extending that out to the customers so they can feel it.
16. Do you have any interest in opening another restaurant?
Many other Detroit Taco companies and others are on the horizon for me.
17. Is there a mantra that you live by?
“Unity over self.” I have no idea where I read that, but it has always stuck in the back of my mind.
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18. Favorite restaurant in Metro Detroit?
Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails downtown. Chef Doug Hewitt has an impressive attention to detail.
19. Best place to get something sweet?
I am not a big fan of sugar to be honest. I try to save it all up for Thanksgiving and Christmas dessert. But, when I do, any old local ice cream shop works for me for a good Boston cooler.
20. Favorite place to shop for fresh produce?
Whole Foods — the quality of the produce is always top notch and tends to last longer than the organic produce I purchase from anywhere else.