Atlanta native Timothy Kelley has a high profile resume of restaurant experience, starting in Atlanta at Restaurant Eugene and The Spence, then moving to New York City where he worked at Per Se with chef Thomas Keller. Now back in his hometown, Kelley is one of the geniuses in Zach Meloy’s kitchen at Better Half. Here we talk with the cook about Per Se, Atlanta and Better Half’s pre-fixe menu.
You started off in Atlanta, how did that dining scene differ from Per Se?
Personally, I feel like New York’s dining scene will be on a scale of its own forever, based on the size and density of the city. I love being a part of Atlanta’s growing dining scene. I appreciate the Southern traditions but always enjoy restaurants that are doing something new and different.
Per Se is an incredible restaurant to work for. What was your experience like?
Working at Per Se was incredibly challenging but ultimately rewarding. As a commis, I learned the value of basic fundamentals. Nearly everyone starts in the kitchen as a commis, and it allows you to fully understand the way the restaurant flows. Even though I might have cleaned a mushroom before, I’d never cleaned a mushroom at Per Se before. Simple tasks I thought I knew how to do became new learning experiences. Chef De Parties can be responsible for mentoring commis and pushing them to master the basics in order to successfully mentor someone else in the future—a cycle that produces some of the most talented and driven chefs I’ve ever met.
How would you describe Thomas Keller? Did you work directly with him in the kitchen?
Every time Chef Keller was in town, he was sure to politely greet everyone individually in the kitchen with a simple, “Good afternoon, Chef!”
What was a valuable lesson that you learned at Per Se?
One of the most important lessons I learned at Per Se was how to properly mentor. Everyone that worked there was there to better themselves. Through the mentoring from Sous Chefs and fellow chefs, we all continually got better at what we loved to do. Not always easy, but always worth it. Leading by example and showing a commis exactly how to make a perfect agnolotti or chive chip with a hands-on demo really made the difference. Failing over and over again but finally getting it was worth it, because it allowed me to better teach someone else.
Now at Better Half, what do you like most about working with Zach Meloy?
I was happy to see a small and unique restaurant like Better Half making a difference, and being recognized by the dining community. The Meloys have worked hard to build this restaurant and deserve to be noticed for it. I don’t know how he does it, but I admire the fact that Zach keeps himself in a constant state of inspiration. He always has new and interesting ideas that evolve into amazing dishes.
What is your favorite part about creating and working on the tasting menu?
I love prix fixe tasting menus because it allows the diner to explore what’s happening in the chef’s head—his or her tastes, inspiration, and point of view. When I’m cooking throughout the day, I’m constantly tasting—dipping a spoon into a sauce and giving it to Zach saying, “Taste this,” because I’m excited about a flavor. It’s exciting for me to essentially do the same with our guests. “Taste this, taste that,” or to explain why a certain texture, flavor, ingredient was chosen. It gives our ideas a just purpose and celebrates the integrity of the ingredients.
What are some of your favorite dishes that you’ve created? Were any of them inspired by previous restaurant jobs?
I don’t think I could narrow it down! I’ve always considered myself a deeply creative person, and with that comes a constant feeling of, “It could be better,” or “I could do this differently.” As a cook, I’m fortunate to work in a career where this mentality constantly pushes me. I love to find inspiration in everything and to never be satisfied or too comfortable. The challenge is to find a way to express that and present it in a relatable way that other people can understand. That’s why I cook!