Feature

Somethin's Gotta Give

December 2004

WHAT DOES IT MEAN IF CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED DENVER CHEF SEAN KELLY OPENS HIS VISION OF A SOPHISTICATED AND SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE RESTAURANT AND NOBODY COMES?

Celebrated Denver chef Sean Kelly stood armed with a meat cleaver, poised to lop off a man's head.

It was 1997, and Kelly, along with his local-restaurant-critic victim, playfully struck the pose for the cover of 5280's annual dining issue. And why not? Kelly's first restaurant, the Aubergine Cafe, had opened to unanimous rave reviews. This magazine had named him the town's "best chef," and on the cover he was having glossy fun with his success: He appeared trim in his white chef's coat and grinned like a guy who couldn't wait to devour life's next course.

Seven years and three restaurants later, Kelly looks like a different man. And it's not just the additional pounds around his middle and the receding hairline. The confident smile of 1997 is gone. On a fall morning, inside Somethin' Else, the restaurant he opened last September, Kelly sets the table between us. From the kitchen, he brings a small French press filled with freshly brewed coffee, a white porcelain teacup and saucer, and a matching cream-and-sugar set. Inside the sugar bowl is a tiny silver spoon. Never mind that today is a Monday, one of the two days weekly his eatery is closed, the consummate chef has carefully set a table for his guest. No cup for him. He's already had his coffee. He's been up for hours. He's anxious, stressed, and even a bit scared.

Before this storefront space in Cherry Creek was Somethin' Else, it was the site of Clair de Lune, Kelly's third restaurant. Like Aubergine, Clair de Lune earned nothing but glowing reviews, even getting national acclaim from The New York Times. Yet Kelly was forced to close Clair de Lune last August, two years after it opened. He couldn't fill the room. And it was - it still is - a very small room.

Forty-two-year-old Kelly is a beefy, koala-bear of a man, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt. As we talk, he sits facing the front windows, which frame a rush of traffic heading east down Sixth Avenue. Behind him is a wall, freshly painted in an earthy tone. Another wall of the restaurant is a mirror, presumably to give the cramped room the illusion of space. Kelly talks a lot, and fast. You can hear his Jersey accent when he gets agitated, like he is now, talking about the death of Clair de Lune, his passion for organic farming, the end of his run as a chef, the personal and professional sacrifices he's made, and why he's doing it all for Somethin' Else.

"I'm interested in moving Denver dining forward," an exasperated Kelly says, shrugging his shoulders. "But people have to go out and eat for it to happen. The restaurant business is as important to the city as the arts, but people will fight for the arts. In San Francisco and New York City people pick up on it and possess this inner responsibility to go out and dine. They realize they have to go out and eat at these places and support them if they're going to survive. It's like sending a check to public television." To hear Sean Kelly tell it, his future is tied to the fate of Somethin' Else, but so too is the future of dining in Denver.

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