Timothy Kelley spent the last year at The Spence, owned by “Top Chef All-Stars” winner Richard Blais. At the restaurant, Kelley was responsible for conceptualizing dishes and plating them, making sure they were as attractive as they were tasty.
Athletes who hope to make the big leagues have a fairly defined path to follow. They might skip a step along the way, and some might take longer to get there than others, but the route is plain.
For a chef with aspirations of reaching the pinnacle, however, there any number of paths to fame, riches and even success. And how success is defined in the cooking world can depend on who is defining it.
For Timothy Kelley, a 2007 LaFayette High School graduate, the top of the food chain can be found at any of the restaurants in New York City with two or three Michelin stars.
That’s why the 24-year-old left his job as sous chef at The Spence in Atlanta, which is owned by Richard Blais, winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef All-Stars,” and moved with his wife, Elise, a hairstylist, to New York. Neither had jobs waiting for them when they arrived two weeks ago.
Kelley was looking to stage — rhymes with “taj,” from the French “stagiaire,” meaning to apprentice or intern — with some of the Big Apple’s superstar chefs. Just a couple of weeks after arriving in New York, he was hired by Atera, a Michelin two-star restaurant in Lower Manhattan that seats 30 people a night, sending out 15 courses.
“Atlanta is a great city with plenty of opportunity, and it is getting better, but New York is the center of anything artistic and anything new and cutting edge,” he says. “As a chef and for my career, I wanted to put myself in an uncomfortable situation, and this is the best place for that.”
Kelley attended the Culinary School at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta, but realized that he would rather get his education from doing hands-on work in actual restaurants. He understands that he will start at the bottom, doing whatever work the chef demands, and he understands that he is being tested not only for his ability to dice an onion but also his ability to clean up his work area, to handle stress and get along with potential co-workers.
It’s a path that Rick Shell, food and beverage manager and former executive chef at The Chattanoogan, says many people take. Shell attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and then staged. Before landing at the Chattanoogan, Shell worked at resorts in Reno and Las Vegas and did a stint cooking on a cruise ship.
He says there are almost as many paths to making a chef as there are ways to make an egg.
“I loved school, but it’s not reality,” Shell says. “Reality is you walk into a place and you have five cooks and you [feed] more people than the school is doing and you are expected to deal with it.
“When I hire someone here, I look to see if they went to school, but it’s not a requisite. The school of hard knocks means a lot.”
You get that through the apprenticeship system restaurants have created, he says.
“Staging, you learn volume. You start from the bottom and it is grunt labor, but you are there to learn. It’s eye opening. You have to earn the respect of the rest of the staff.”
He says it is also an opportunity to work in different types of restaurants to see if your interests lean more towards French, seafood or Asian cuisines, for example.
Kelley wasn’t sure he wanted to be a chef just a few years ago, and now he wants to learn as much as he can from the best he can find. He also wants to experience all types of cooking and, at this point, doesn’t have a favorite style or ultimate destination in mind.
Although he’s always been a creative person, dabbling in many forms of art while growing up, a career in the kitchen was not something he aspired to do. After high school, he attended Dalton State College, and it was there he thought cooking might be for him. While in the culinary school at Kennesaw State, he didn’t much care for the teachers and thought about changing careers, but the school encouraged students to get jobs in restaurants.
He first worked at Marietta Pizza Co., but it was at Blue Pointe in Buckhead that things changed. There he met Chef Jeremy Miller, who became a mentor to him.
“He got me on the right track,” Kelley says. “He encouraged me to care more about food and the discipline required. It is an industry where you can get better every day if you challenge yourself.”
From there, he moved to Holeman & Finch Public House in Atlanta.
“It was a gastro pub and I worked the main station there and it kicked my butt, so to speak. I was getting yelled at every day for tiny mistakes,” Kelley says. “I hated it when I was there, but it made me a better chef.”
When he heard that Blaise was set to open The Spence a little over a year ago, he thought it would be beneficial to be a part of a start up. When Bravo showed up to do a follow-up on one of its star chefs, they filmed some scenes at The Spence and Kelley got a little on-air time. Being a celebrity chef, however, is not on his to-do list.
“My wife would love for me to get on ‘Chopped’ so I can win and get $10,000, but I want to be down in the trenches and work behind the scenes,” he says.
Contact staff writer Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...