Cafe Society

Life on the Line

Sean Kelly is no celebrity chef. His hands give him away. They're big, strong, the wrists thick from handling sauté pans, fingertips mauled, palms rough as untreated leather.

Cooks know cooks from the feel of each others' hands, and they can gauge how long someone's been in the business from the thickness of calluses and slow accumulation of scar tissue. Blindfolded, I could recognize some of my own partners in crime with just a handshake. The kinked pinky from years of whisking the roux with the whisk held wrong, the fingertips beveled by slips of the knife, the occasional missing digit or truly noteworthy scar.

Not too long ago, I ran into a former boss who -- like me -- had hung up his knives for a kinder, gentler career path. He'd become a restaurant owner. After we exchanged the usual pleasantries, he asked, "So, how are your hands?" I told him that a few days earlier, my wife had handed me a cup of coffee straight from the French press and I'd had to set it down, fast, on the counter, because it was so hot. It was the first time in ten years I'd been able to feel heat on the palm of my hand. He nodded, commiserating. We were both becoming sissies, useless in the real world of knives and fire and boiling duck fat. These days, the biggest threat of injury we faced was a really nasty paper cut. Our hands were getting soft.

But not Sean's. He's no overstuffed teddy-bear chef in spotless whites throwing out catchphrases to a rabid, captive audience. He's not a clipboard-checker, either, stabbing his gold-tipped digital thermometer into every entree coming off the hot line to make sure the entrecote for table 22 is going out well-done. Sean is a cook, and he has the hands to prove it.

He didn't have to stay in the kitchen. Things could have gone very differently after he closed The Biscuit and his much-loved Aubergine Cafe and walked away from the business in early 2001. In the wake of these much-publicized closures, investors were waiting in line to throw big, dirty bags of money at him. "I remember sitting down with these sixty-, seventy-year-old millionaires," Kelly says. "Guys who had all these ideas, who wanted to be restaurant owners and could toss around $40,000 like it was nothing. But that's not nothing. That's a year's work for someone like me. They were like, 'Oh, don't worry. We'll set you up with banks and loans and everything.' But you know what? Someday, someone's gotta pay all that money back, and I didn't want that kind of debt on me."

He could have done a deal with the devil and spent the rest of his days flitting around a swank dining room, taking all the credit for work being done by hordes of sweaty underlings soldiering away on the other side of the swinging doors. He could have become an institution. Restaurant Sean Kelly would have been wildly successful. An empire of Baby Aubergines and Kelly's-to-Go takeout oyster-and-bresaola franchises might have made him a very rich man.

But instead, he did exactly what no one expected. He became a cook again. After a year on the outside spent reading, cutting fish for a local supplier, doing some food writing and getting reacquainted with his family after years of fourteen-hour days, Sean Kelly's back in the kitchen, making your dinner at Clair de Lune. There's no sous chef, no line full of tattooed, felonious kitchen mercenaries brought in to communicate the "essence" of Sean Kelly to the masses -- just Kelly himself, along with Terry White as garde manger, roundsman, prep and pantry cook, and Gustavo Murillo, who washes the dishes. They work together five nights a week in a tiny, bright, well-organized kitchen smaller than those in some starter apartments, and they do it because this -- and not some Pandora's box of debt and celebrity and eighty-hour weeks -- is what Kelly wanted. Something small, intimate and controllable. A place where nobody owned him, that was truly and totally his. And most important, a place where he could cook. "No investor would've gone in with me on a place like this," Kelly says, standing in the alley by Clair de Lune and describing the strange twists that led him to this cramped, pint-sized space on Sixth Avenue.

And he's right. I don't think there's a money man out there who would have risked his neck (or his credit rating) on the concept: eight tables in the dining room, most of them two-tops; five people on the staff most nights (including servers); one cook in the kitchen using local produce and meats -- much of it organic, all of it expensive and some picked, grown, harvested or slaughtered just for him.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan