“I made the decision to become a vegetarian when I was four,” says Jackie Sharlup, her inner smile giving further warmth to her outer one, bright blue eyes aglow amid a lush riot of curls. “It was the first time I’d ever seen a chicken, and I asked my mother, ‘What is that?’ She answered, ‘That’s a chicken!’ To which I responded, horrified, ‘Dinner chicken?!’”
She laughs, deep from the belly. “That was it for me.”
As a former private chef and, for the past dozen years, the owner of Tula Kitchen in Bay Shore, the fact that this resolve has never been shaken is even more admirable. Far from a vegetarian restaurant, this organic- and health-conscious establishment offers dishes from around the world and proteins from across the spectrum. The global menu, heavily influenced by the Lebanese heritage of executive chef Helvie Assaly, makes it incredibly tempting to veer off the plant-based dishes and go for the manakish hitting the summer menu (fresh flatbread with toasted thyme and sesame, seasoned with sumac and topped with a cucumber salad with yogurt and egg), the poke bowls they’ve been offering before it was cool, and classics like chicken kebabs with tzatziki and tabboule. In fact, her signature meatloaf stars chicken’s cousin, turkey.
“I cook based on a feeling, a connection I make with the food,” she explains to this baffled omnivore, drooling over the large and diverse menu, its vegetable-forward offerings inducing regret for having eaten before the interview.
“And I cook for others,” Sharlup emphasizes. “I’ve always liked challenging myself by catering to everybody, to take care of everybody on a different level.
“But most importantly, I want to help people heal themselves through what I do with food, like my mother did for my father when I was growing up. He had cancer, and I believe she kept him alive for over 20 years without chemo. We used to go to Chinatown for special teas, sure, but she took great care of him through food. That’s how I realized that we can truly help people by the way we cook for them: by providing healthy meals that make them feel good inside and out, without feeling like they’re missing anything.”
Watching and helping her mother through this ordeal from a young age was a defining experience for her. It connected sustenance and compassion in her mind, and inspired her to embark on a career that has taught her how to cook for different blood types and illnesses, decrease inflammation by use of natural, quality ingredients, and how to make food delicious without the crutches of added sugar and butter; refined or processed staples; or heavy flours, including wheat.
However, it’s not only for human “others” that she, her business partner Lina Rinaudo and chef Assaly cook for. Each spring, the love that fuels her is the one that brings her full circle to that fateful day when she learned what “dinner chicken” looked like. Every year since the day Tula Kitchen opened its doors 12 years ago, they partner with Little Shelter for one of the most highly anticipated fundraisers the animal shelter organizes.
Food, space, and staff are all gifts the restaurant is happy to make to the organization, and every penny of the $30 tickets goes straight to the shelter. Entertainment, door prizes, and a Chinese auction—whose ticket sleeves could hold the key to a $100 raffle ticket toward Little Shelter’s annual $25,000 or Mercedes CLA giveaway—are provided as well as a cash bar.
Up to 150 people are easily hosted in the recently expanded space, a beautiful design that marries Jackie’s personal past and present, from plush glamour on the older side to open, modern Victorian chic on the newer one. Little Shelter’s event fills the entire restaurant, but smaller ones like drives with Almost Home, are accommodated for as few as 35.
These causes are the ones that touch Sharlup the most and provide her with an even deeper sense of the good food can do—and one of purpose for the turns her life has taken.
“Through Tula Kitchen, I can now give back in a bigger way,” she says with moving passion in her voice.
“I used to volunteer at the Islip shelter, and go around organizing unofficial drives and holding garage sales to raise funds. But this—this makes a real difference.”
And in the end, there’s nothing more healing than knowing that.
Want to attend Tula Kitchen’s next fundraiser for Little Shelter? On Sunday, June 3, you’ll have your chance. The event will run from 12:00 to 3:00 p.m., and tickets are just $30 per person. Buy yours before they sell out: https://littleshelter.com/upcoming-events/2018/3/18/join-little-shelter-tula-kitchen