Q&A With Angry Donkey’s Keltie Sullivan

Keltie Sullivan wearing glasses in a black shirt
Keltie Sullivan

When her legendary eponymous bistro Keltie’s in Westfield ended its decade-long run in 2012, chef Keltie Sullivan had no plans to open another sit-down restaurant. Instead, the Delphi native and multifaceted culinary professional with nearly four decades of experience turned her talents toward country clubs and catering, working for Carmel’s Bridgewater Club and Prairie View Golf Club while operating Keltie & Co. Catering. But lovers of her potpies and beggar’s purses can once again enjoy her fresh and flavorful take on Midwestern comfort food, now that she’s back in the kitchen at Michigantown’s homey bistro, Angry Donkey.  

After you closed Keltie’s in 2012, you told yourself you wouldn’t open another restaurant. But now you’re back at the helm of your second spot, Angry Donkey. What changed your mind?

For years I was driving back and forth from Westfield to Delphi to visit my mother, and I’d see this restaurant storefront that was called Angry Donkey. There was something about it that got me dreaming of owning another place of my own. Michigantown has only a few buildings, and the place was beautiful from the outside but looked like a bit of a dive. It was something that I could completely make into whatever I wanted. In 2018, it went up for sale, and there I was looking into buying and opening a new spot.

And you didn’t think about changing the name?

Actually, when I went inside, the restaurant was pristine and in mint condition. The previous owners had obviously poured a lot of money into the location. The bar was beautiful. When I investigated a change to the signage, it was going to cost upwards of $30,000, and I just realized that it was actually a pretty catchy name. For a place in the middle of nowhere, it was a name that would draw people. It’s actually only about 35 minutes from nearby cities like Westfield, Carmel, and Kokomo—even Lebanon. It’s become a bit of a destination restaurant, which I like.

What had you learned in the years since you operated Keltie’s?

I learned that I don’t have to have everything custom-made and brand new. The curtains I had at Keltie’s cost $10,000. I had a vision, but I just couldn’t keep up. At Angry Donkey, we were pretty cautious about what we did and what we offered. We didn’t want to offend people who had traveled all this way and just wanted a good, solid meal, not something that would break the bank or be too fussy. So we’ve got a lot of comfort food items, albeit with my style, and we made sure to offer them at a decent price point. So far that’s been a good formula.

You bill Angry Donkey as a Hoosier-inspired bistro. What is the essence of Indiana food for you?

First off, it means almost everything from scratch. My grandmother made everything herself, and I think a lot of Indiana natives grew up with mothers or grandmothers who cooked like that, often out of a garden. Of course, we do as much pork as we can, and I’m known for my pork chop with a cranberry compote and bacon jam. And we like to do a lot of corn. We’re working on a signature corn pudding. I love green beans and other seasonal produce. But we make sure to add some seafood to the menu as well.

What are some misconceptions that people make about cooking and restaurant work?

One thing that is central to my cooking is that I don’t throw anything away. Food costs are always rising, and what looks like it’s ready for the trash bin could be utilized for something else. When you’re cutting up meat, cook the trimmings to flavor another dish or a stock. Use leftover potatoes for a soup. We try to turn everything we get into something else, and it really reduces our food costs but makes for some tasty dishes as well.

A lot of food-lovers dream of opening a restaurant. What advice would you give them? Is culinary school experience necessary?

I’d ask them if they’ve worked in a restaurant or the food industry before. Have they worked for someone else? It looks fun, and it is fun, but you have to have the grit and the financial backing. Whatever you think you need, both financially and in terms of time, double that. You have to have some experience or business know-how, but it’s not necessary to go to culinary school. I will say that I loved culinary school in Oregon (Oregon State University and Horst Mager Culinary School). It was fun, and I learned so much about butchering and sanitation that would have taken years on the line. The most essential thing is that you have to want to be at the restaurant pretty much all the time. You’ve got to be there to shake hands and kiss babies.

What have you learned about balancing your life with your restaurant work?

I don’t know—this is really what I do 100 percent of the time now. My kids are grown, and I’m single again, and I just really love what I do. I simply don’t understand restaurant owners who don’t work at their restaurants. I’ve been lucky to surround myself with people I love working with. And I love the customers and talking with them and feeding them every day. It’s so funny where our customers come from. There was a man from Kentucky who is just a huge donkey fan, and he came here for his birthday. Because of its location, Angry Donkey always gets new customers who are just traveling through. It’s a great place to meet people, and that gives me so much joy and satisfaction for the kind of work I do.