Not long ago, it was considered risky to open a restaurant past a certain block on Larimer Street. With all the construction dust in that area, though, these days the risk lies in other neighborhoods, such as Park Hill, where noted chef/restaurateur Sean Kelly recently opened Desmond Bar & Grill. But if anyone can turn a quiet locale into a hotspot, it’s Kelly, a longtime presence on the Denver scene who’s been involved in a number of high-profile gigs, including at Barolo Grill (where he served as opening chef) and his spectacular Aubergine Cafe. In our conversation, which has been edited for length, Kelly opens up on why he chose Park Hill, why he relishes being the underdog, and what to expect from his next venture in — you guessed it — RiNo.
Westword: How long have you been in the business?
Sean Kelly: Since 1978. A long time ago.
Aubergine closed fifteen years ago, so you’ve lived through Denver’s renaissance. How is the scene different today?
To say it has changed immensely is still an understatement. The restaurant scene, as a whole, is now being driven by operators and/or chefs doing multiple projects. This internally is being driven, in most cases, by external cash forces, primarily real-estate-funding dollars and incentives designed to ensure that the project gets a proven operator with a bit of star power. Not much of that kind of money was invested into the industry back in the day.
In terms of your signature dish, I think of Aubergine’s fried baby artichokes. Is that what you want to be known for, or is there something else?
Those ’chokes were a big part of my identity, but it has been a long time since I have served them anywhere. The Judy Rodgers chicken I served at Aubergine is the most-requested dish as I shake the hands of valued guests who have been following my career through the ages. Sadly, Judy [of San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe] passed away a few years ago, and I have always had mixed feelings about “her dish” being “my dish.” I always served it in honor of her, with her name on the menu and her full permission, and she isn’t here to seek that from any longer.
With your pedigree, you could easily helm another destination restaurant, but Desmond is oriented to the neighborhood. This is good news for residents of northeast Denver, but I’m curious: Why did you decide to take this approach?
I’ve always tended to spend most of my time worrying about all that can go wrong tomorrow rather than what went right yesterday. I’ve lived in Park Hill for nearly twenty years and have long dreamed of an opportunity to have a restaurant here, in my own neighborhood. I jumped at the chance when Table Top closed, but I also recognize there is a big risk in this part of town still. I feel like I am pushing the envelope a bit by doing what I am here, not only at these prices, but simply the concept of a progressive, casual restaurant. I know Desmond has a ways to go in its evolution before it comes close to anything resembling “great,” but I relish the challenge of building it toward that goal, night by night. I think I work best with my back to the wall, in the underdog role. There are very good restaurants in every ’hood in Denver now. I think this is strengthening the entire scene overall, but ultimately you have to serve your neighbors more than ever.
Desmond is Mediterranean in focus. What is it about this style of food that captivates you?
Quite simply, it is all I know. I grew up cooking Italian food; that is really my culinary foundation. In the ’80s I learned and cooked more French than Italian. When I left the East Coast for Denver, the Western palate seemed more inclined to a lighter cuisine. Olive oil was replacing butter, cream was out, and the entire Mediterranean diet became desirable for me to draw from.
What’s a career highlight?
There’s no one single event that could possibly eclipse the night at Barolo in June 1994, cooking and hanging with the late Julia Child.
This is a hard business. What keeps you motivated?
A community of happy customers is the goal. Failure and debt will get you out of bed every day, though. Nothing is more humorous to me than the current infatuation and over-glorification of the restaurant business, chefs in general. No one wants to tell the truth about this business, but there is very little profit involved in most restaurants these days. I hear the call for a nationally enforced $15 minimum wage, but are people really ready for jarring, significant rises in food prices in their favorite restaurants?
Why did you decide to start cooking?
Not much choice, really. I was in this business before I knew anything else. I hated school with a passion. I was in a lot of trouble as a kid. It was cook, pick up trash or landscape for me. My buddy’s family owned the local Italian joint in town. I got a job making pizza there, and the rest is history.
What’s your earliest food memory?
My grandfather had an expansive vegetable garden behind his house, and that place was so special for me. My grandmother was a very good scratch cook, and I loved being in the kitchen with her. It doesn’t get any more farm-to-table basic than that.
Biggest flop you’ve ever served:
Someone sent their soup back last night at Desmond, and I can’t move past that right now.
If you could only work one station, what would it be?
Pastry. I have fallen more in love with baking as the years have gone on. As a whole, all I ever really wanted to be was a pizza man, but for some reason it just never worked out that way.
Guilty pleasure in terms of food:
Palacios dried picante chorizo. I have no self-control around that stuff.
One ingredient you wish would disappear:
Corn syrup. It’s borderline toxic, by most accounts, in the science community. Our country’s convoluted politics keeps it entrenched in the food supply.
Do you cook at home?
Yes, I love to cook at home for many reasons, but more than any other is that I pride myself on the fact that I’ve cooked something from scratch almost every day of my life. As a father of two teenagers, I tend to cook what my kids are going to enjoy the most.
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What changes would you like to see in Denver’s food scene over the next five years?
I am fairly content with the scene in its current state. Colorado is in such a great place for food-and-beverage production and consumption. We have the hippest governor in the country in that regard. Denver, as a whole, is the envy of a lot of other cities at the moment.
Best tip for a home cook:
Cook with the seasons and eat real food. Always.
I am nothing if not restless! I am proud to announce that I will be one of the vendors opening up a small business inside the Central Market in RiNo at 27th and Larimer, in the spring sometime. My business will be called SK Provisions and will feature two gigantic French rotisseries for roasted chickens and authentic Italian porchetta, as well as other items such as burgers, grilled items and side dishes. The market will also feature a dining area and a full bar.