Compliments to the Chef: Restaurant writers recognize merits of 'progressive' cooking

by Melodie Henderson
Chino Champion

April 12-18, 2008

Owen's American Bistro in downtown Chino is considered by some patrons to be a well-kept secret.

Now that owner and chef James Kelly has been singled out as Chef of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association, the secret may be harder to keep. The association is a community of restaurant critics who nominate their choices for the yearly award. Mr. Kelly was presented with his medal at the end of March.

Mr. Kelly and his wife, Denise, live in Chino with their son, Owen, the eatery's namesake. Across D Street from city hall, the restaurant, which celebrates its fifth anniversary in September, is tucked behind the Chino Youth Museum and next to Fred Aguiar Square. The menu is what Mr. Kelly calls " progressive American with a sense of humor."

"Progressive because I'm always trying new things and use a lot of modern cooking techniques — what they call molecular gastronomy," he said. "And also I like to put my sense of humor into everything I do."

Some of the cutting-edge food preparation techniques used by Mr. Kelly call for liquid nitrogen, or xanthangum, instead of butter. He learns, he says, by trying new things when he and his wife dine out and from television and Internet, along with studying "about a million cookbooks."

Mr. Kelly said his colorful family heritage may have contributed to his passion for food and his artistic presentation style, one of the things that helped him earn the Chef of the Year title.

My grandparents had an Italian restaurant in Chicago when I was born; we were just always there. I remember playing with pizza dough, and watching my grandmother make everything from meatballs to sausages," Mr. Kelly said. "My mother was an artist all her life, so possibly I have her eye for color."

Now 39, Mr. Kelly opened his first restaurant with his sister when he was 21. The place was called the Brown Bag It at Riverside Drive and Mountain Avenue. After he met and married his wife, the couple moved to Chino, having been asked by the city if they were interested in participating in a redevelopment project. "We took one look at this place and it was perfect," Mr. Kelly said.

Old brick walls guard a paved courtyard, which holds an amphitheatre with a timeline of the development of the city, the River of Life fountain and a few historical sayings by famed figures, including one by William Shakespeare that reads, "what is the city but the people?"

The vine-covered outdoor seating area and the simple interior of Owen's dining room are described by Mr. Kelly as "feeling like it's somewhere else — you could be in Pasadena, New Orleans or Tuscany," he said.

Mr. Kelly puts the flavor of Chino Valley into what he cooks for his guests, doing all of the shopping for the restaurant himself, and buying almost entirely local fare, "I enjoy that part of it too," he said. "I shop the farmers markets and use fresh ingredients, whatever is in season," he said, commenting particularly on Chino strawberries and sweet corn.

"Our food is not handled by 10 different people like it might be at another restaurant," Mr. Kelly said. "from start to finish, I don't leave the food."

A customer favorite at Owen's is the monthly wine tasting event, which usually sells out. Live Jazz adds to the atmosphere Mr. Kelly says he and his wife wanted to create.

Dedication to customer service is another reason Mr. Kelly believes Owen's has enjoyed success. "It could be argued that service is equal to or more important than the food itself," he said. "Denise greets guest with a big smile and they have a very personal experience here — in many cases she takes care of their whole experience."

One of Mr. Kelly's favorite dishes to prepare is braised short ribs, because of the long preparation process. "It takes days to make them right, and there is something so satisfying about them. They are so deep and flavorful," he said.

His favorite food, he said, is anything he hasn't tried before. "our son is very good at trying new things as well," Mr. Kelly said. "He's a super-foodie in the making." Owen's is open four nights a week, Wednesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. until close, which allows Mr. Kelly to do his shopping and indulge in his other passion.

"Of course, we could make more money if we were open more, but I want to spend time with my family," he said. "Limiting the hours really allows me to be involved in what I'm doing when I'm at the restaurant, and not just get through it."