Farewell Chef Kelly, you will be missed
In 1997, I walked into a bustling newsroom to start my new job and the scene was chaos. I felt lost, overwhelmed and I was ready to walk back out. Little did I know, that chaotic scene is now what I call a normal day.
One of the first people I met was this zany, thin, moustached man brimming with energy, a thick New England accent and a contagious laugh. He introduced himself with a firm handshake and kind eyes as he offered me a stuffed pepper, which he insisted I eat … right then. It was delicious. That man was Chef David Kelly, the Culinary Corner columnist who has been sharing his expertise with the community in our paper for a-quarter-of-a-century.
Chef would regularly drop by the office to bring the staff delicious food that he would make special for the roomful of salivating journalists who would descend upon his offerings like a pack of starving wolves. Chef would break into his trademark cackle, he liked nothing better than making people happy.
For nearly 21 years, I have worked with Chef, a fascinating man who lived life to its fullest. He was always asking others how they were doing, interested in their lives, rarely talking about himself or his accomplishments. Always in constant motion, Chef could get more done in a day than most could in a week. The epitome of a hard worker, whatever he did in life, he did it at the highest level possible.
Born and raised in Massachusetts, he’s a Vietnam veteran, an accomplished chef who has worked in some of the finest restaurants on the eastern seaboard, a popular columnist, and most importantly, a devoted husband to his wife, the love of his life, Catherine.
He and I have had some great laughs together over the past two decades. Like the time I made a typo in his column and it ended up on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. When I called the restaurant he was working at to apologize for the error, concerned he would be upset, he laughed and then screamed to the kitchen staff “Hey everybody! I made Leno!” The entire kitchen staff then began banging pots and pans, cheering for their jubilant leader.
Or the time he was driving along the highway in New Jersey when he saw a state corrections vehicle pulled over to the side of the road, with one inmate fighting with two guards, while the other, in shackles, was ambling as fast as he could across an open field, trying to escape. Captain Spatula, as I started calling him after this, pulled over, jumped out of his car and took off in pursuit of the escaping inmate. Chef Kelly weighed about 140 pounds and was in his 60s. The man he was chasing was twice his size and three times younger than him. Chef tackled the escapee and hung onto him, enduring a flurry of punches, losing several teeth, but ultimately holding him down until the officers subdued the first man and then came and cuffed the one Chef was scuffling with.
For his efforts, Chef earned an award of recognition from the state. The next time I saw him, he greeted me with a huge, pearly-white smile and pointed to his mouth shouting in his Boston accent, “Look Davey! The great state of New Jersey bought me new choppers!”
The legacy that Chef David Kelly leaves behind is one of a man who lived his life with dignity, style, grace and most importantly, a desire to serve those around him in whatever capacity he could.
Last night, Chef lost a long battle with cancer. When the cancer was discovered, doctors gave him six months to live. But as he and I often joked, he is “Kelly strong,” living nearly four years after the diagnosis. He even continued to work as a caterer as he endured chemotherapy, radiation and multiple surgeries.
I mentioned to him more than once about letting his readers know about his health situation. But he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to enter the kitchens of his readers each week as a culinary guide and friend, and not somebody to feel bad for. So I kept his secret, until now.
Even this week, he gave us a final column, teaching us how to make some comfort food, not hinting at his plight, but instead, wanting to enlighten the readers.
With the blessing of Catherine, I just wanted to share with you the story of the man behind the food. A heroic man who made a difference in this world each day by treating people well, coaxing a smile out of even the grumpiest of acquaintances. Chef is an individual who shined brighter than most, always making the best of any situation.
I feel blessed to have known him and proud to call him my friend.
Rest in Peace, Chef!
Dave McElhinny is the Tribune-Review North Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]