The restaurant business is notorious for crashing and burning dreams — 80 percent of new restaurants reportedly fail within six months of opening, and second restaurants rarely measure up to the glory of the first. But Peter Kelly? He’s clearly defied those odds. In fact, with four long-running, über-successful restaurants in the lower Hudson Valley, Kelly has made this daunting challenge appear almost easy.
In 1983, at age 23, he opened his first — Xaviars in Garrison. “I was too young to worry. If it didn’t work out, I’d do something else,” he says. Fast-forward almost 30 years and he’s still cooking — and snaring accolades from diners and critics alike: Zagat gives him an astounding 29 out of 30 for the food at his Xaviars at Piermont; the New York Times gave the same restaurant four stars. Kelly is also the Valley’s own homegrown celebrity chef, having bested Bobby Flay in a 2007 episode of Iron Chef America. His success is due in part to the fact that he’s never forgotten one prime ingredient: run your own show rather than pay someone else to do it. On most nights, he visits three of his restaurants. Busy guy.
Age 52 Hometown Yonkers Where he lives now Rockland County, with wife Rica and son Dylan, 15, who’s helped in the front of the house and the kitchen.
His start “I washed dishes at a family friend’s German restaurant.”
French pilgrimage “I made a monthlong culinary pilgrimage to France in 1983 to sit and eat in some of the temples of haute French cuisine. I wanted to understand why people traveled from around the world and made reservations months in advance at three-star restaurants like Taillevant, Lucas Carton, Bocuse, L’Arpege. It taught me about gracious service and what it meant to work in the hospitality industry on a professional level.”
What you served your opening night “A rare breast of sliced duck over green peppercorn sauce, which was a fairly new idea then.”
The appeal of the business? “The immediate gratification, making a guest happy and feel welcome; being involved in a lively business where you’re under the gun to produce.”
What’s changed most in the industry? “There’s a lot more pressure.”
His culinary focus “Staying current without being trendy. We do a tortellini of foie gras in duck consommé with roasted shittake mushrooms and plump white raisins, garnished with baby spinach leaves. The consommé is classic, from the 1800s; the foie gras is an ingredient that gives a Hudson Valley spin; the raisins seeped in wine add sweetness and something unusual.”
How are each of the restaurants different? “Restaurant X is our country restaurant, while X20 is our more urban restaurant. Xaviars at Piermont [above] is our most ‘haute,’ and Freelance Café is our most casual.”
Your favorite? “I don’t have a favorite — they’re like children and you love each equally but for different reasons.”
Why launch X20 in downtrodden Yonkers during a recession? “People thought I was crazy. Why not Chappaqua or Rye? they asked, but Yonkers is my hometown, and I wanted to prove that a business could have a significant impact on a community.”
Sustainability influence “Farmers in the area have been driving their products in the back of station wagons to me since I started.”
Hottest Valley trends “The farm-to-table movement; the high level of professionalism. The CIA raised the bar on dining.”
What’s missing “Asian is not well-represented; neither is Spanish.”
Cookbook plans “I’m working on one and hope to finish by year-end. The working title is In the Shadow of Manhattan. It will tell the story of my cooking style and me — I’m the 10th of 12 children — what it takes to run the restaurants, and will include recipes.”
Happiest moments “Winning Iron Chef America, which gave us name recognition. And giving the commencement address at the CIA last year.”
Pet peeves with diners “Nothing — without them we’d be out of business! We try to show them respect.”
Why you’re still at the top “I try to outwork my colleagues and instill that in my team. My family is supportive, but the most important reason is staff, which understands my vision and implements it.”
On the stove at home “Something simple — grilled steak, pasta, roast chicken, some type of crab.”
Dinner invites from friends? “We don’t get many. I think people are intimidated to have chefs over. But we love everything, even a hot dog on the grill.” Hey Peter, are you free next Saturday night?