Denis Kelly grew up in Los Angeles and received his B.A. in the Integral Program, where among other things, he was introduced to the study of wine by the Christian Brothers. A Woodrow Wilson fellow, Kelly received his M.A. from Indiana University and did further graduate work at the Sorbonne in Paris, studying classics, language, comparative literature, and philosophy.
Returning to California to teach, he cooked in a Cajun restaurant near Berkeley and helped launch Friends of the Vineyards to protect area wineries from developers. Since 1978, when he founded his own public relations firm, he has acted as a consultant to wineries and restaurants in the Bay Area. Kelly teaches classes on food and wine in the extension program of the University of California and in the Integral Program at St. Mary's. In addition to the four cookbooks co-authored with Bruce Aidells, Kelly has also written Creole and Cajun Cooking and has published many articles on food and wine in such magazines as Gourmet and Wine & Spirits.
A poet and storyteller, Kelly gives readings in the Oakland area. He and his wife, Kathryn, live and garden in Oakland and at their farm in the hills of Sonoma County.
At a recent retirement dinner, Denis was feted and honored with a poem by guest Willis Barnstone
DENIS THE KELLY
A poem by Willis Barnstone on the occasion of Tutor Kelly's Retirement
the Kelly from medieval Marco Polo Venice
claims he is an Irishman
because his dad was a cop and his sister is a nun
but like Shakespeare Denis is from Italy.
His tongue is Mick and magic but his panoply
of florid speech is elegant wop found in an Etruscan black pot
from a tomb of princes high on pot
who knew the habits of the nightingale.
Kelly knew late bars in Brooklyn, Jonah in his whale,
LA barrios and an Algerian pimp
in the French toilet who smelled of whores and holy shrimp.
In tongue and place, Denis was verbally always at home.
His French was vulgar, his Greek a roam-
ing revolutionary's handbook for a riot, his Kraut so full
of flawless slang, Hermann Goering pawned his single testicle
to hear him croon the Marseillaise in Bavarian. His array
of perfect dialects made polyglot Danny Kaye
a monolingual twerp. I met the Denis in my first class
at Indiana University and he was no pain-in-the-ass.
He shone like brand new plumbing. He liked to joke,
and when Ogden Nash in his Nashery said "The only thing in the neighborhood that is worse
than a gangster
is a practice prankster,
the label didn't fit my pal. No gangster, no practical prankster, no self-humiliating
thankster, no wining crankster, though I've seen him pop a few but Denis is no tankster.
My Venetian pal is a medieval bankster.
For four decades I've stored every mad hope and all my mad monkey business with Kelly,
and this wild ocean-jumping dolphin is never late or smelly.
One afternoon in Bloomington I made a list for his doctorate
orals, a sober occasion for determining for whom the days are fat
And so began the hour of academic sin.
We were a group of five serious professors versed
in every footnote in the universe.
I was the poet. All I could do in class was rhyme
and drag my life through Spanish mystics metaphysical slime
of Provencal green song. So huddling around a desk
we began our Kafkesque
meander through die Weltgeschichte of world Kultur. Denis was hot.
Nothing the nodding sauerkrauts could ask could blot
the verbal ink that filled his Venetian Grand Canal.
I saved fireworks for the end. In my midnight travail,
I informed our group, I'd come upon a wondrous Provencal poet, Guillaume des Baux,
cousin of the noble troubadour Lunet Uc de Poicybot.
I invented Guilaume for this soverign occasion.
Of course Denis caught the ploy and played it royally for own secret derision.
Please tell us, Mr. Kelly, about the life and art of Guillaume,
his lovers' names, the perfume of their kisses, where they would roam
after a cabal in a high Cathar shrine. Recite a few canços and pastorellas. Tell us why ...
Denis inflated my fable, and made the lark and nightingale of Lebanon sigh
on hearing this Pavarotti from his parliament of birds
endow our holy trinity room with silver words.
The ponderous profs hung their wits on every syllable
that my Venetian disciple
muttered and deposited on their academic plate.
At last I said it's getting late,
it's time, it's time, IT'S TIME!
and so five grave professors stopped him in mid rhyme.
"Leave the room, please," I said. He left and we conversed. With Distinction
was our verdict. Denis returned for his extinction.
And so we shook maestro's cooking hand and handed him seven old
doubloons of Peruvian gold
to guide him through his nights and days at Saint Mary's
where he chatters logically like an ancient Greek canary,
where he fills students with his cosmic erudition and charm
and turns a program into Plato's refuge from sloth and verbal harm.