Denis Kelly '60: The Real Deal

Denis Kelly ’60 loves telling stories, cooking food, drinking wine and writing, so it’s not surprising that he authors cookbooks, judges wine competitions, teaches grilling techniques and ran restaurants and wine shops in Berkeley and Oakland during the 1970s, when a food revolution started in California.

Denis Kelly '60.

What is notable is how well he’s done. His Hot Links and Country Flavors cookbook won the Julia Child Award in 1990, and Tom Douglas’ Seattle Cooking received the James Beard Award in 2002. The Complete Meat Cookbook, which Kelly authored with sausage king Bruce Aidells, is a best-selling authoritative guide to meat, and Kelly has written a number of cookbooks for Williams-Sonoma, including Essentials of Grilling, Steak and Chop and Mastering Beef and Veal.

Kelly is also founding national director of the Society of Wine Educators and a former Northern California director of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He has judged wine competitions, including those at the California State Fair.

Whatever he does, he remains true to his top principle about food and wine — authenticity.

“The whole movement in Northern California was a movement back to the roots of food,” says Kelly, who has raised chickens and rabbits along with growing his own vegetables at his houses in Oakland and western Sonoma County. “We were sick of eating this crap our mothers gave us. It was inauthentic. We wanted to lead an authentic life.”

Kelly says he learned about food, real food, at Saint Mary’s, particularly from the late Brother Sixtus Robert Smith, whom he recalls as a “great cook.”

“There was a wine and food culture at Saint Mary’s,” Kelly says. “There was always a tradition of communal dining and wine as part of civilized life. It’s a gift from whoever put the universe together. Life is to be enjoyed — that’s the message I got here.”

Kelly, an Integral tutor who teaches humanities, loves to share that enjoyment. Anthropology professor Paola Sensi-Isolani, who has invited Kelly to speak to her students in her food and culture class, says he enthralls them with his knowledge and enthusiasm.

“He becomes one of the group,” she says. “He’s jovial, fun, a good cook, a good wine evaluator and he has a lot of personal anecdotes.”

If you can’t be in a class Kelly’s teaching (he’s planning to retire in the next few years), you can find anecdotes in his cookbooks. In “Irish Uncles and Beefsteaks at Ryan’s Riding Emporium” from The Complete Meat Cookbook, he shares the story of uncles Tom and John, who “always agreed on beef: they would examine a steak minutely and discuss its qualities like art critics with a falsely attributed Rembrandt.” The story ends after a party is over, when “we’d all walk back to the cars in the gathering dusk, remembering famine and exile and ancestors who ate meat once a month if they were lucky, celebrating America with feasting and good times.”