When one considers the noteworthy culinary experience of pastry chef Tom Culleeney, it’s very refreshing to hear him joyfully say, “I become a kid when it comes to doughnuts.” He’s more proud than embarrassed to say that when he bites into a really good doughnut, he still experiences the delight and wonder that he did as a boy. “I admit it—I’m the quintessential doughnut lover,” he says with a smile. “I may have become sophisticated about how to make a great doughnut, but I’m just a kid at heart when I taste one.”
During the past decade, Culleeney has literally traveled throughout the United States in search of the perfect doughnut. The reason he has done so is part of his career story:
Culleeney is a native of the Chicago area, and he fell in love with cooking at a very young age. He was always driven to be the best and even as a high school student, he sought out opportunities to learn from the masters. At the time, Le Français in Wheeling, Illinois was considered by many to be one of the best restaurants in the United States (Bon Appetit magazine called it “America’s Greatest Restaurant”). Culleeney contacted Chef Jean Banchet persistently until an opening on the line at Le Français became available. He hasn’t looked back since.
Culleeney spent five years at Le Français, starting out as a salad preparer. He was then given a chance to work as a pastry chef, which he loved and which prompted him to take time off from Le Français to pursue training as a pastry chef. He attended the École Lenotre in Versailles, France and earned his Pastry Chef certificate there in 1983. He then worked at Master French Chef Roger Verge’s restaurant, Sutter 500 in San Francisco, working closely with Executive Chef Hubert Keller (Verge went on to open the renowned Moulin de Mougins in the south of France). Returning to Le Français, Culleeney became Chef Saucier and this gave him a strong savory foundation as well.
In 1985 he opened his own restaurant, Les Plumes, in Chicago. He grew the restaurant into a sizeable operation, supervising a staff of 30. The restaurant was featured in numerous periodicals and magazines and he was nominated to compete in the Bocuse D’Or, one of the world’s most prestigious cooking competitions.
In 1992 he decided to change directions and become more involved in high volume restaurants. The timing was good; Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises had decided to take on Greek food with the upscale Papagus, located in the Embassy Suites Hotel. Culleeney was appointed executive chef and he managed all kitchen operations, including restaurant, banquet and off- premises catering, and supervised a 50-person culinary team. The restaurant was named Best Greek Restaurant in Chicago by the Chicago Tribune, and a second location was opened in suburban Oak Brook in 1997.
Culleeney’s culinary skill earned him enormous respect among the Lettuce Entertain You organization and, in 1999 he was promoted to the position of Corporate Chef for Research and Development. In this all-encompassing role he managed Lettuce Entertain You’s complex recipe development process, designed menus for new concepts, and contributed food concept ideas for other restaurant companies as part of Lettuce Entertain You’s restaurant consulting business.
The year 2001 was a fortunate year for doughnut-lover Culleeney, as Lettuce Entertain You became heavily involved with Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, becoming the sole franchisee in the Northwest part of the United States. He moved to the Seattle area and opened the first Krispy Kreme store in that part of the country. Over the next eight years he opened 11 more stores in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Canada, and coordinated doughnut production for all of the operations.
Culleeney’s contributions to Lettuce Entertain You and Krispy Kreme, from a product development standpoint, were very significant. He developed recipes and production methods for a wide range of doughnut flavors and he also spearheaded the development of scones, breakfast pastries, bagels, cakes, fritters, cake doughnut mixes, all of which increased sales in these Krispy Kreme stores by 20 percent. He also developed the Kool Kreme concept—soft-serve ice cream that was offered in the Seattle Krispy Kreme locations. Kool Kreme did so well that Krispy Kreme now offers it to franchisees as an additional offering to enhance sales during warm weather months.
Throughout this period he also devoted many days to researching the best doughnut shops in the United States. Most of the true stars of the doughnut business, from a product perspective, were small, mom and pop type shops. What they lacked in style they made up for in substance, with great recipes, high quality and an artist’s eye for what the public would be enthusiastic about. One of his greatest observations was that while true doughnut lovers appreciate great renditions of classic flavors, they also will adopt new flavors if they work. In other words, creativity definitely has its place in the doughnut world.
In 2011, after many years working in a larger corporate environment, Culleeney chose to scale back a bit and return to a more personal, entrepreneurial business. He had been thinking a great deal about artisan doughnuts—taking doughnuts back to their handcrafted, amazingly delicious roots. He had known chef and restaurateur Scott Harris for many years, and he was correct in believing that if he approached Harris with his idea for an artisan doughnut shop, Harris would quickly embrace the idea. These initial discussions eventually led to the formation of Glazed and Infused, which is now under the Francesca’s Restaurants umbrella.
In his new role, Culleeney is one of the leaders of a highly skilled team which plans to take doughnuts to new heights, build a large following and become a highly respected company throughout the country.