Leaving home after 25 years to start fresh 2,000 miles away isn't an easy task, especially when the move is from the urban clamor of Manhattan to blissed-out Boulder. But a gas leak drove chef Brad Kelley, owner of pan-Asian eatery and market Kelley and Ping, from the city he'd called home for decades. New York City's loss is Boulder's gain.
Kelley founded Kelley and Ping primarily as an Asian market on the edge of Manhattan's China Town, but soon was serving dishes he'd discovered while traveling in Japan, Korea, China and Thailand. (The other half of the restaurant's name came from his former partner, whom he eventually bought out.) But in May 2017, a contractor working in the building where the restaurant was located drilled a hole in a gas line, and in the blink of an eye, the chef had to shut down operations. Months of waiting for repairs led to news that it would likely stretch to more than a year, so Kelley and his family packed up and moved to Boulder, where he'd gone to college and where he still had relatives.
After taking time to assess the scene, Kelley started teaching cooking classes at Food Lab Boulder while hatching a plan to begin delivering bento box lunches to Boulder businesses. Kelley and Ping bento boxes made appearances at a few special events (including the Flatirons Food Film Festival), and the chef secured a commercial kitchen to bring his plan to fruition. This month, he launched the Kelley and Ping website, where businesses can order lunch online for delivery.
"My passion is the street food of Southeast Asia," Kelley explains. "The inspiration has been and always will be Asian markets. I've lived all over Asia, but when I lived in Japan, I was taken with the bento boxes that they would deliver and then you would leave the tray in the hallway for pickup."
Like those Japanese delivery services, Kelley uses real bento boxes, so food arrives compartmentalized and ready to eat, and the trays are picked up after lunch. But the food goes beyond Japanese cuisine; Thai, Korean, Vietnamese and American-Chinese (Kelley says his kung pao cauliflower is a big seller, even if it's not something he picked up on his travels) are available on the regular menu, and weekly specials like Thai-style cashew chicken or upcoming chirashi sushi bentos will be available, mostly in a range of $14 to $16. Each box is a complete meal (including dessert), but additional sides like spring rolls and kimchi fried rice are also offered.
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Right now, there's a minimum order of five bento boxes, and the cientele is mostly corporate offices. "Boulder is a happy city, and there's lots of team-building and employee rewards happening in tech companies," the chef notes. He also sees Boulder as a city that's very educated about international cuisine.
Kelley and Ping is starting out small to maintain a high level of quality and service, so the company is only taking one group order per day, and orders must be placed a day in advance. But Kelley plans to increase his ability to serve more customers daily, and adds that a new brick-and-mortar location of Kelley and Ping is the long-term goal.
"When I first started out, sticky rice was mind-blowing to people," Kelley recalls. "We would change our menu twice a year; I remember adding larb gai (a Thai chicken salad) and nobody knew what it was." But these days, he points out, people are well-traveled and knowledgeable and are looking for new flavors.
And Kelley and Ping is ready to deliver it, one bento box at a time.