Chef Q&A: Honorary Dinner Chairman Peter Kelly of X2O

This self-made chef and restaurateur opened his first restaurant at 23 and hasn’t looked back. Now, the winner of last year’s Burger & Beer Bash dishes on his career, how he crafts his divine menus and more.

Present a challenge to star chef Peter Kelly, and watch him to go work. Like the leader of a great orchestra, Kelly conducts large events such as Wine & Food Weekend with all the precision and flair of a true aficionado. As Dinner Chairman, he selects tastes and notes to their best advantage, and organizes myriad details to produce a spectacular performance!

Experience is key, and Kelly, owner/chef of Xaviars Restaurant Group, has heaps of it. His Yonkers restaurant, X20, and Restaurant X in Congers regularly earn 29s in Zagat; Xaviars and Freelance Café in Piermont also receive the highest praise.

A self-made chef, Kelly opened his first restaurant at age 23. He beat Bobby Flay on Food Network’s Iron Chef America in 2007. He was nominated for a 2010 James Beard Foundation award for best chef in the Northeast.  Last year, at Westchester Magazine’s Burger & Beer Bash, Kelly took home the prize for “Best Burger.”

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Here, Chef Peter Kelly takes a few moments to serve up answers to our most “burning” questions…

What was the spark that ignited your culinary career?
I think it was at a very young age while working in a fairly formal restaurant, watching the faces of the guests as they enjoyed their meal. I felt this immediate gratification of a job well done. I enjoy the feeling of making guests happy, and the hospitality industry allows me just that.

You went to France on a food-finding mission. What lessons did you learn there?
I did make a culinary pilgrimage to France to sit in and experience some of the temples of haute cuisine. My mission was to try to understand why guests would travel around the world to visit a restaurant. What I learned was that hospitality coupled with beautifully executed cuisine and a comprehensive wine selection in a comfortable setting makes for a compelling reason to visit an establishment.

You’re famous for your contemporary American cuisine. Could you define that?
I believe that contemporary American cuisine has the potential to be one of the greatest cuisines of all. Though very young in comparison to the great cuisines of Asia and Europe, American Cuisine is a melting pot of all, allowing for greater experimentation and the reinterpreting of the classics of other cuisines. The contemporary American cuisine may borrow a technique from China, a sauce from France, and an indigenous ingredient from the Hudson Valley to create a dish that is at once familiar but feels wholly new.

How important are fresh and organic products to the creation of sumptuous meals?
An ingredient does not have to be organic per se to be wonderful. However, fresh local produce, seasonal just-caught fish and the like are what separate good food from extraordinary cuisine.

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Your menus are always full of surprises. What’s compelling about this year’s Winemakers Dinner?
What‘s compelling about this year’s dinner is the group of people who will prepare it. The chefs and the restaurants represented are all consummate professionals, and are committed to presenting and serving the best meal possible. Working in collaboration, we’ve created a menu that represents the cuisines of Westchester and the Hudson Valley very well. The menu speaks to several different styles, food stuffs, and expertise of the chefs chosen to prepare the multi-course menu. The wines we will be pairing with the menu reflect some of the greatest viticultural areas in the world, as well as the winemakers that craft these world class wines.

As a vintner, you are a consultant for Hudson Valley winemakers. How does this contribute to your craft?
Wine should be an integral part of most meals. It’s important to understand that wine is a living thing, and that the depth and breadth of the wines available to us offer an opportunity to experience so many different pairing partners. Learning about wine is a wonderful and never-ending experience because each year brings new vintages and new surprises.

Your restaurants Xaviars and Freelance Cafe, share a wine cellar. What types of selections can be found there?
The wine programs at all of my restaurants, I hope, allow guests to experience wine at any level that’s comfortable for them. There should be an appropriate wine available at every price point. Restaurants by nature are places to celebrate, and that means a guest should be able to find a wine appropriate to their celebration. That said, a restaurant might not be the best place to learn about or discover the greatest vintages or Grand Cru vineyards of the world. Yet, these should be available so that guests who wish to celebrate at this level, may.

Think you’ll win “Best Burger” again this year?
I expect a REPEAT performance, of course! However I know I will have very stiff competition, and I am just happy to be a part of the festivities.

Last question! Did you know you would beat Bobby Flay in the Cowboy Rib Eye battle?
I only hoped to do well!  Beating Bobby Flay in a “Grilling” competition was a tall order. Bobby is a great chef, and I am appreciative that I had the opportunity to compete against him.

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