He slayed Bobby Flay on Iron Chef, started a top-shelf restaurant at 23 and never attended culinary school – unless you count having lunch at one. But Peter Kelly, owner of Xavier’s at Piermont, Restaurant X, Freelance Café and X2O Xaviers on the Hudson, had much to share with the culinary students at the Tech Center at Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES Friday.
“A customer walks in the front door and walks out the same door some time later,” Chef Kelly said. “If they haven’t been changed by the experience of dining in our restaurant, we’ve failed,” adding that his goal is to exceed the customer’s expectations 100 percent of the time.
Kelly told the students that a great restaurant is a work in progress and that he constantly strives to improve his offerings.
“The bar is always rising,” Kelly said. “You guys are getting an amazing education that people before you didn’t have. As an old guy, I have to be careful because young chefs are always nipping at my heels.”
Although he strives to stay current, Kelly cautioned the budding chefs not to become slaves to food trends.
“You have to respect the classics. Many dishes that are the epitome of fine dining started out as peasant dishes,” he said, citing basics such as mac and cheese. But Chef Kelly does incorporate “molecular gastronomy” trends such as foam infusions into his repertoire — a pear-infused foam atop a foie gras is one recent example. “The exciting thing is to pump it up to a different level,” he said.
Tenth in the line of 12 children born and raised in Yonkers, Kelly said he began working in restaurants when he was 14. While studying business administration at Marist College, Kelly held a number of kitchen and front-of-the-house positions in some of New York State’s finest restaurants. In 1983, his culinary interests led him to France and the pursuit of culinary perfection.
When he returned, he opened his first restaurant, called Xavier’s, in Garrison.
Perhaps most important to the fine-dining experience, Chef Kelly told students, is a staff that works well together and provides diners with a pleasant environment. “When people walk into a restaurant, everyone on the staff should be smiling!”
To that end, Kelly said, he trains his staff well and treats members of his team like family, with everyone sitting down to eat together twice a day and supporting one another.
Nick Genovese, a senior culinary student, said he really liked the concepts behind each of Kelly’s different restaurants and that he “takes everything to the next level. His staff is more like a family than just workers to him. I think I would enjoy working for him.”
Di’ejha Bennett, an Ossining High School student who has not yet decided which part of the restaurant business most interests her, said she was encouraged by Kelly’s path to success.
“I liked that he began in the business or hospitality side of things and became a chef and was still successful,” she said. “It shows that you can make changes in the industry and still make it.”
Caption: Renowned chef Peter X. Kelly gives Tech Center Culinary students feedback on the menu for their upcoming luncheon for the public.