"That guy was so into organics and freshness, it was his life philosophy," says Joseph Wrede, who worked for Kelly at Aubergine in 1995. Wrede is now the owner of Joseph's Table in Taos, N.M., and in 2000 was named one of Food & Wine's best new chefs. He says Kelly is a Denver pioneer of a "New American food revolution."
"He was pushing that idea of organics before anyone else there. He imprinted me with a belief system that I still follow."
To hear Kelly talk, Americans are eating themselves into a national disaster. For Kelly, cooking is not just about the plate that's delivered to the table. It's about community between the farmer, the chef, the server, and the diners. Meals are meant to be prepared, savored, and enjoyed the way they were in his grandparents' kitchen. "That's where I learned how things should taste," he says. "I thought a tomato should taste like a tomato from my grandfather's garden." He believes that when restaurants are run right, healthy food is acquired in a socially responsible way - from local farmers - and served in an environment where the shared experience creates positives that transcend a single dining experience and ripple throughout the community. He thinks there should be a national holiday when every American reads Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser's best seller that puts a magnifying glass to the U.S. fast food industry and its impact on American workers. "They should teach it in the schools like sex education."
His philosophy guides his life away from the kitchen. Kelly lives small and simply. Aside from his mortgage, and a single American Express card (the only card that won't let you carry a balance), he pays as he goes. He doesn't have cable and has made it this far without learning how to use a computer. A man of such standards - the French-press coffee and porcelain teacup were not necessary for our chat - and rigorous expectations can be a difficult boss. Stories of Kelly unloading on staffers are the stuff of legend in Denver restaurant industry. At Aubergine, so goes one story, Kelly regularly chewed out employees in the walk-in freezer. Yet Wrede doesn't remember any such Kelly contretemps. "I don't even think we had a freezer there," he says. "Sean was all about 'fresh in fresh out.' Besides, he's an intense man, he didn't need to yell, he would just look at you - that would be enough. His standards were known and you didn't want to disappoint him."
At Aubergine, Kelly consciously extricated himself from the kitchen and moved into the role of businessman. Largely because being a chef meant long, hard hours, and that was time he'd rather spend at home. He'd married Randi Smith, the girlfriend he had followed from the East Coast, now a professor at the University of Denver. And in 1998, the couple became parents of twins (a boy and a girl). They had been planning to start a family, but twins were a surprise. "Sean realized the amount of work and energy that goes into kids, and it was a decision he thought long and hard about," says his brother, Patrick. "When they found out about the twins, he took it seriously, he knew it was going to be even harder to juggle everything."