Sean Kelly saw the lights flashing in his rear-view mirror. Next thing he knew he was busted for driving under the influence. It was the mid '80s. Kelly was a kid, the 20-year-old son of a New Jersey cop. He'd been less than a stellar high school student in his hometown of Rumson, N.J., an extremely wealthy New York suburb with pockets of working-class neighborhoods like the one where Kelly was raised. While many kids in town were attending college and aspiring chefs were enrolled in fancy culinary institutes, Kelly was working as a line cook at a local joint, Val's Tavern. Family friends gave him the break. At Val's Kelly fell in love with the fast-paced work and the lifestyle that seemed to go along with it. As Kelly puts it, "the waitresses, the money, the drinking." Then he got nailed for the DUI.
In order to regain his driver's license, which was necessary for Kelly to travel to better restaurant opportunities, he got a lawyer, paid the fees, completed the court-ordered rehab (group therapy with heroin addicts), and supplied the mandatory urine samples. The hassle, humiliation, and the depressing stories he heard in the rehab meetings, all amounted to more than enough to convince him to quit booze for good. Kelly's brother, Patrick, remembers that time as a turning point. "He told me he'd quit drinking because he saw there were responsibilities he wasn't taking care of," says Patrick, who also lives in Denver. "The restaurant scene had carried over to his lifestyle, and work had become all about the party scene. He realized he had talent, that food was his passion and it was time to step up to the plate and do what he needed to do to be an adult and anchor his life." Sean Kelly realized that he had, as he now says, an "addictive personality," and that it was far more productive for him to be addicted to work.
He started working at a restaurant owned by one of his father's acquaintances - a convicted felon who'd served time after getting in trouble with a Las Vegas casino, and who paid for the lawyer who represented Kelly during his DUI troubles. Under this boss, Kelly worked out of nearby Philadelphia, helping the guy manage steak houses around the country. During the course of his duties, Kelly began dating a female bartender who was attending the University of Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter, in 1991, his girlfriend moved to Denver. Kelly came out for a visit and never left. He stayed for love, but was also immediately attracted to the town. Back on the East Coast, with its old money and its preoccupation with degrees and pedigrees, it's harder for a working-class kid who screwed off in high-school to advance, even in the kitchen. Kelly saw Denver as a good place to make a fresh start.
His start in Denver was a most inauspicious one: He manned the pizza oven at Sfuzzi in the Cherry Creek Shopping Center. On the cusp of an economic boom, Denver was flush, just beginning a 10-year run of good times in the restaurant business. Kelly bounced around a few more kitchens in town before landing at the second incarnation of Kevin Taylor's legendary Zenith. There, in less than a year, Kelly made his mark as a chef and was hired away to be the opening chef at Barolo Grill. Barolo opened big in 1992 and was a smashing success. By 1995, Kelly had established himself as a respected chef and had developed a small but devoted band of diners. With the boom at its peak, the kid from Jersey found two silent partners and opened a restaurant with a name he probably couldn't have pronounced in high school, Aubergine Cafe. And he became a star.
"At the time, everyone who worked there knew they were working at the best restaurant - for the best chef - in town," says Paul Attardi, who waited tables at Aubergine for six years. The restaurant sat 40 people and served Mediterranean cuisine. During the next seven years, Kelly garnered critical accolades from local and national press and won a legion of fans. He picked up a meat cleaver, put on a chef jacket, and posed for the cover of 5280.
At Aubergine, Kelly could do it all his way and he quietly yet unmistakably schooled Denver on his food philosophy. As a child, Kelly would often visit his grandparents' Rumson, N.J., garden. He, along with his two brothers and sister, were expected to work on the farm. After the tomatoes were picked, young Kelly would sit on a stool in his grandmother's kitchen and watch her cook. Everything was picked fresh, prepared carefully, and enjoyed in warm, intimate community. And so it went at Aubergine. As the visible owner, whenever possible chef Kelly used fresh, locally grown organic vegetables and served all-natural meats.