Star Chef Lands on Our Shores
Thanks to the opening of native son Peter X. Kelly’s much-anticipated new eatery in
, this city’s really cooking. And we foodies have a new culinary destination. Yonkers
Photography by John O’Donnell and Chris Ware
Local boy Peter Kelly wins four stars, appears on Iron Chef, and now returns to Yonkers.
This month, Peter Kelly will open his most stunning and ambitious restaurant—right on the Yonkers pier. Kelly’s X2O Xaviars on the Hudson, a multi-level, 45-table work of art, took six years and many, many millions of dollars to make its eagerly awaited, much-ballyhooed amphibious landing. The 14,000-square-foot contemporary restaurant sports warm bamboo floors and walls, hand-picked Hudson River stones, high-backed walnut banquettes, rich chocolate chenille seats, striated Spanish glass, and three magnificent 100-bulb chandeliers that soar over the main dining room with breathtaking views south to Manhattan and north to the Tappan Zee.
X2O has a small private wine cellar, custom fabrics draped across the ceiling of the mezzanine, and even a painting of a romanticized version of Yonkers industry done by noted Hudson River artist John Beerman. There’s also a balcony where you can nurse your chardonnay outside in the river breezes.
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And the menu? Ah, the menu: whole roasted branzino with sun-dried tomatoes, Hudson Valley duck schnitzel with glazed turnips, and parfait of Ahi tuna with fennel panna-cotta and wasabi foam. Or if you’d rather eat light, nibble on the freshest sashimi at the sleek “sushi-esque” bar, or sip a
And just in case you don’t know much about the baby-faced man with a crinkly-eyed and slightly mischievous smile, behind this mammoth undertaking, let us introduce you. Granted, Kelly’s restaurants would serve the purpose better—as would his recent appearance on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America. (Kelly is the first non-Manhattan-based chef in the tri-state area to compete on the show.)
To those of us who know and love food, Peter Kelly is a legend. It started with his cooking. No, that’s not exactly right. It started with his restaurants. As lush and elegant as Kelly’s food is, the food itself is only one aspect—albeit an extremely important one—of his restaurants. You don’t think about it when you dine at the spacious Restaurant X & Bully Boy Bar in Congers, the casual Freelance Café & Wine Bar in Piermont, or the very elegant Xaviars, also in Piermont, and now at X2O Xaviars on the Hudson, but the food is seamlessly matched to a style of service, to the décor—to myriad details diners never see.
Kelly, the culinary force behind his restaurants, doesn’t literally cook every dish for every table at every restaurant, but he is the creative mastermind behind it all. At all of his highly touted restaurants (“extraordinary” from the New York Times and two Zagat ratings of 29), you’ll find his signature cuisine, rooted firmly in the classics and heavily influenced by flavors from Europe and Asia. But Kelly’s food is not about the origins of the flavors. At its soul, the food is debonair and seductive; his innovations don’t jump off the plate, they reach up and draw you in. This is consistently true at all his restaurants, and no wonder: each evening, he shuttles between all four kitchens. At the end of the night, his chef’s coat is colored with the telltale splashes and splotches of someone whose hands have been in the food.
What kind of man does it take to strive for—and frequently achieve—perfection; to create new and inspired dishes; and, most recently, to take on a multi-million-dollar business venture that lays it all on the line?
One could surmise that to mastermind all the details (“At X2O, we’ve tried to consider everything from pocketbook hooks under the bar to having the sinks under the windows in both the men’s and women’s rooms so that you look out at the George Washington Bridge as you wash your hands,” he says), he must be a tireless control freak. To create the glorious dishes, he must be imaginative, inventive, and ingenious. And to turn an old pier in Yonkers into a gorgeous multi-level restaurant and ferry dock, he must be wildly ambitious. Or perhaps just plain crazy.
Maybe he is all of the above: imaginative, inventive, ingenious, a bit crazy—and (there’s no maybe here) nice, real nice.
Need proof? His employees—now a small army of 150—stay with him for years, something almost unheard of in the restaurant business. Mark Monteleone, general manager at Restaurant X, has worked with Kelly for 18 years. “Peter is very loyal, very honest, and very hardworking,” he says. “It makes for a great work environment.” For Christmas, Kelly’s employees pooled their resources and bought their boss a laptop to help him keep in touch as he adds the drive to and from Yonkers to his already packed schedule. “We’re really like family here,” Monteleone says. “We spend days off together, we know each other’s families, and that all comes from Peter. He makes the effort to know everyone personally, not just as employees.”
Despite all the accolades he receives, Kelly is remarkably humble. As his big brother, Ned, who manages Freelance Café & Wine Bar, recalls, “When Peter got four stars in the Times, he told everyone, ‘Okay, now we’re going to have to earn them.’”
Other top chefs sing his praises. “There was never any question about Peter’s innate intelligence, his drive, or his dedication to the craft of cooking,” says revered chef Gray Kunz of Café Gray in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center and Grayz, opening in midtown this summer. “Or to being a first-class restaurateur, operating some of the finest restaurants in New York, regardless of location. He’s always been a natural at everything he does: a natural chef, entrepreneur, and a natural-born leader, and I admire Peter greatly.”
Peter Kelly was the 10th of 12 children (nine of them boys) born into a devout Irish Catholic family in Yonkers 47 years ago. He claims to have grown up on such delicacies as Spam Parmigiano. His father died when Peter was 12 years old, leaving his mother (who didn’t drive and had virtually no work experience) to raise the brood on her own.
No wonder, then, that Peter and Ned agree their mother should, in Peter’s words, “be canonized.” Their talk is peppered with “Harrietisms”—the words and wisdom of their late mother—by which they both try to live. “From the time I was twelve,” Kelly says, “there was a rule: one third of what I made went to the house, another third to the bank, and you kept the last third for yourself. I still try to live by that.” When asked if it was a struggle, he offers a Harrietism: “I cried I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”
A few months before, I heard a tuxedo-clad Kelly deliver that same line to more than 250 donors at a gala for Table to Table, a hunger-relief organization, at which he was being honored. Says Claire Insalata Poulos, the organization’s founder, “What I really admire about Peter is that, as his talent kept improving, his generosity expanded.” He is involved with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the Putnam County Historical Society, the
Kelly wanted to own a restaurant from the time he was a child. “With such a big family,” he says, “it always felt like a restaurant anyway. There were so many people to feed.” Ned says when he and Peter were kids, they “played restaurant.” Peter would often command him to, “Go get the order!” It’s no surprise, then, that Kelly used all of his spending money—“Whatever I had,” he says—dining out. “I’ll never forget when Peter was about fourteen, he sent back his first dinner,” Ned recalls. “It was at Bonanza Steakhouse, and he was right, the steak was tough.”
Still, Kelly never intended to be a chef—it was the dining room he loved. “I enjoyed the graciousness, the hospitality that came with the front of the house,” he says. He first experienced “the fast-paced atmosphere—and putting on a tux” working at Plum Bush restaurant in Cold Spring when he was in high school. “I felt very grown-up and sophisticated.” He quickly moved up the ranks to become captain.
A couple of years (and jobs) later, he was hired by one of the finest restaurants in Manhattan, Laurent. He became the youngest captain—at only 21 years of age—in the history of the renowned restaurant. “It was like being at an incredible dinner party every night with titans of industry, wealthy East-Siders, and celebrities. It was all really exciting.” By the age of 23, Kelly felt ready to venture out on his own. Did he have any formal culinary education? Did he ever attend culinary school? “Sure,” he answers. “I went to The Culinary Institute of America once for lunch.”
Despite his lack of formal training, he acquired a lease to the beautiful dining room at the Highlands Country Club in Garrison, New York. “In order to open up, I sold my car. The start-up costs were about nine thousand dollars. I found a chef, and the night we went out to celebrate our partnership, we got into an argument.
“It was silly,” Kelly continues. “My feeling is what makes a great restaurant is to tear down the wall between the kitchen and dining room. It has to be a respectful relationship. He disagreed. So I told him we wouldn’t be working together anymore.”
But there was still a restaurant to open. “I decided I could learn to be a chef, and then I would never be at the mercy of anyone in the kitchen.” To educate himself, Kelly took his savings and left for a month. He went to France and ate at “all the temples of haute cuisine,” he says. “It was my culinary pilgrimage.” He came back and cooked his way through Jacques Pépin’s La Technique. “I read it like a bible.”
According to his friend Glenn Vogt, who worked with him at Plum Bush and later at Xaviars in Piermont (and went on to become general manager of Windows on the World), Kelly made his share of mistakes in those days. “My wife and I would sit in the garden, waiting for dinner, and sure enough, Ned would come out and say, ‘Peter’s burned the lamb again; it’s going to be awhile.’ But even then, we knew he would become a great chef.”
In 1985, two years after opening his first restaurant, Xaviars in Garrison, the New York Times gave it a three-star rating. Two years after that, Kelly opened the tiny, elegant Xaviars at Piermont, which earned the coveted four-star “extraordinary” rating from the Times and a solid position on Zagat’s “Top Restaurants in the Country” list. For his third restaurant, he created a casual environment that represented a radical departure from anything he had done before. He opened Freelance Café & Wine Bar to accolades from both the press and the public. “Then, a lot of people were offering me restaurants,” he says. “But I was still struggling to keep them all at a level. I wanted to do these well.” But when the owner of the landmark Bully Boy Restaurant came calling, he found the new challenge irresistible. “I guess I wanted to prove to myself I could do ‘big.’ It’s by choice I’m not doing Manhattan.” And why not?
“It’s a lifestyle choice,” he says. “I like the pace here, and I can be at any of my restaurants in forty-five minutes. I also like being above the fray. The restaurant business is more cutthroat in Manhattan.”
Not everything Kelly has touched has turned to gold, though. “I had a major setback a couple years ago,” he recalls. “I started a business called the Impromptu Gourmet, and it was a home meal-replacement company. Chefs supplied a recipe to me that I turned into a dinner kit that would be delivered to people’s homes. They just had to be assembled. And the roster of chefs we had was really high-end. We had Jean-Georges. We had Charlie Palmer from Aureole. It was the hottest product on the market. But we were a little ahead of our time, and my partner and I wound up not seeing eye-to-eye with each other. We wound up having to fold the company. I realized that I like to be in control of everything, and I can’t work with someone who won’t let me be in control.”
Now Kelly is in control of his most monumental challenge to date. His latest venture will have an impact on the economy of his native town of Yonkers and will drive New York’s Port Authority to add a new ferry line to the system.
X2O Xaviars on the Hudson may be Peter Kelly’s biggest success. While there’s surely a Harrietism that can say it better, it is only fitting that a talented man who works so hard and who is such a generous and genuinely nice guy should be rewarded.
As for we mere humans: don’t be surprised if, years from now, you find yourself boasting, “I loved the Xaviars places early on. Why, I was a fan even before he opened in Yonkers.”
Marge Perry is a syndicated columnist for Newsday, Prevention Magazine’s Grocery Guru columnist, a contributing editor for Cooking Light, and chief-instructor for the Institute of Culinary Education. She is also the mother of two “nearly perfect” children.
When the mission of a restaurant is “to exceed guests’ expectations a hundred percent of the time,” it’s a clue that the restaurant aims high, real high. And chef and owner Peter Kelly and his team have lavished the same attention on the interior design of X2O that they lavish on their award-winning cuisine. Take the “sushi-esque” bar in the lounge area that looks right into the open kitchen (that is, if you can tear your eyes away from the view of the river). The honed and aged granite countertop is trimmed in river stones that Kelly and his son, Dylan, collected from the shores of the Hudson. Between the granite and a walnut bullnose, there is a small inlay of glass running the length of the bar lit with optical lighting that projects random words like passion, love, frustration, which express the varying moods of the project, along with the names of all the people involved. The foot rail echoes the original ironwork on the exterior of the building; dramatic red glass-bead wall coverings have the appearance of topico caviar.
A strip of bamboo on the floor connects the lounge to the main dining room, its 30-foot ceiling dotted with hundreds of tiny lights hung with wire, while wrap-around glass windows allow views from every seat. “With a view like this, it’s hard to seat people anywhere but by the windows,” Kelly says. “But here, the best seat in the house is in the middle—two plush banquettes with limestone table backs and oversized upholstered chairs.”
Original artwork throughout the restaurant was commissioned from John Beerman, one of the most renowned Hudson River landscape artists (his work is in the permanent collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the New York State Governor’s Mansion, and more). Spanish glass (yes, shipped from
— Nancy L. Claus