By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Aug 10, 2016 at 11:01 AM

"I love Milwaukee. I love my life here. I love the people here. And I love my restaurant. And it’s the very hardest thing to do, to let it go," says James Beard Award semi-finalist Jan Kelly, who recently announced that she will sell her nearly decade-old restaurant, Meritage, and move back to her home state of California.

Kelly, who says she didn’t make the decision lightly, notes that it was the culmination of numerous factors. Her husband Gary is retiring, and the health of her mother, who Kelly describes as "always active and on the go," has waned in recent months.

"Both of my parents are in their 80s," Kelly notes. "It’s to the point where I can’t do this from a distance. I need to be there with them and spend time with them … Would I love to stay here for another nine years? Yes, but everything had just aligned, and it’s the right time."

But her departure doesn't mark an end to the legacy Kelly has left with Milwaukee. Nor does it mean her time here will be easily forgotten.

We talked with Kelly about her career in Milwaukee, as well as her plans for the future. And then we consulted with some of her colleagues in the industry – all of whom helped to paint a colorful portrait of her contributions to the growing culinary scene.

Love at first sight

"I wanted to move here the first time we came here on vacation," she says. "It took a while to convince my husband Gary [who is from Wisconsin], but when his friend offered him a job, we took it on."

"For many years, it was important for me to clarify that I lived in Milwaukee, but I was from California. And eventually, that didn’t matter. Being here has been a really wonderful experience. I will always carry a part of the Midwest in me now."

Watching the scene grow

"One of the best things about being here has been watching Milwaukee grow into a true culinary destination ... There are so many chef-owned, chef-driven restaurants," she says. "And you can do that here. It’s difficult and expensive to do that most other places. And here, there’s so much opportunity. There are cool little enclaves and tiny spaces where you can open restaurants, and people will come. It’s like New York, but better."

"And the thing I’m really sad to miss out on is what will all of this mean for Milwaukee? In five or 10 years, will there be a shake-out? What will happen?"

On farm to table

"One of the best things has been making the connection between the food I make and the person who produced it. When Dave [Swanson] initially approached me with this idea of cooperative buying and his restaurant supported agriculture program, I thought that was brilliant."

"I started with Growing Power when they were just growing lettuce. And I remember moments when Lynn from Yuppie Hill would deliver eggs to me in her car. Al from Lakeview Buffalo Farm always had great stories."

On developing her culinary style

"Milwaukee made me the chef that I am today. When I came here, I’d worked at very high end restaurants that served a lot of French food. And there were very few of those here. And ultimately, it was so fun to be set free from what I’ve done before. It was so enjoyable to break out of the mold and make foods that I loved."

"When I worked at the Knick, it was so fun. You always had a choice of pasta salad or fries. I love the combination of barbecue sauce and mayo. So I mixed them together and put them on a pasta salad. And you’d think I’d invented ice cream or something. And that was so funny. I could never have done something like that in the restaurants where I’d worked. Working in Milwaukee … I really just started having fun. I started developing my own style."

Becoming Midwestern

"I learned so much about being gracious and kind and supportive. They’re things my parents taught me. But they’re also things that are so natural to people here. There are always people in the corner cheering you on when you try something new, when you branch out."

"People don’t need to do all of these collaborative and charity dinners, but chefs here are always willing. And I’ve loved doing them over the years because I get to work with talented chefs and play in the kitchen with them. One of the things I’ll always carry with me are the friendships I’ve made. I’ve always felt privileged to be included in groups of chefs, some of whom were friends for years before me."

Great people

"I have so many memories of great people I’ve worked with. Two of them are Robert and Mary Lou Simmelink. She was a pastry chef at Delafield House. And I remember we bonded early on … When I was Mike Engel’s sous chef at Hotel Metro, Mary Lou was the pastry chef there. And those are things I take away. I’ve always loved the way Michael Engel cooks. I took joy from it. It just flows from him with such ease that it was just like watching the symphony. And I remember thinking, 'Gosh, I hope I can do that someday.' And eventually it did, but at the time, it was something I could only aspire to."

"And Lish Steiling ... She came to me when I working for John Nehring at Sommelier’s Palate at Sendik’s in Shorewood. She was working at Grenadier’s when it started on fire. And she came in to work at the deli, but her talent was so wasted there. So I brought her over to the wine bar. And we just clicked. Oh, my God, I never had so much fun cooking. She always says I was her mentor, but she was really mine. She brought out things in me that I didn’t think I had. She taught me to be fearless about what I cooked and what I thought I could do. And we ended up at Barossa together. And working with her was like breathing in the best ocean air you probably could. I always knew, if Lish was there, that the day was going to kick ass."

The future

When we asked Kelly what’s next for her in California, she smiles.

"Honestly, I’m not sure," she says. "My parents live in San Clemente, so we’ll live somewhere in the area. I’ve promised my husband that I won’t be opening a restaurant, but I’m not retiring. I’m excited and scared at the same time."

She says she’s unlikely to hang up her apron anytime soon. However, she says she may branch out and try something new.

"Tom from Maple Creek Farms suggested I do pig roasts," she notes. "So when I’m all done settling up at the restaurant, I’m going to work a couple of pig roasts and see what I think. It’s an intriguing idea."

Jan Kelly: Milwaukee will miss you, too

As Meritage closes its doors, the culinary community in Milwaukee is already mourning the loss of Kelly and Meritage. I talked to a number of area chefs, as well as those who have worked closely with Kelly over the years, and here is what they had to say.

David Ahlf, longtime Meritage bartender
"As talented as Chef Jan is in a kitchen, that didn't necessarily translate well behind a bar. Thanks to this imperfection, I am eternally grateful for the eight years of absolute carte blanche I was granted to experiment, learn, grow and develop my bartender craft behind her bar. There are very few people in this world who get to work in that kind of environment. I am honored to have been one of them. The more creative her menus became over the years, the more I felt pushed to concoct more creative cocktails. That's a very good thing, because Meritage made a lot of people very happy." 

Marie Edwards, longtime hostess and server at Meritage
"Jan [Kelly] is a truly awesome person. She never said no to any group or event. So many other restaurants have extra staff and kitchen space to do events … and here she was with a tiny kitchen and three people max and always willing to go the extra mile. Among other things, she was cooking with local products before local was ‘cool’ ... and her vegetarian dishes were so good, they made me consider becoming vegetarian." 

Chef Nell Benton, The National Cafe
"It has been an honor working with Jan over the years on fundraisers and various culinary events in Milwaukee. Jan welcomed me with open arms into the culinary community and has always inspired me with her creativity, talent and hard work. Her love and enthusiasm for her craft shines through in everything she does. Milwaukee is losing a truly great chef. She will be sorely missed."

Chef Thi Cao, Buckley’s
"Jan Kelly's wonderful culinary career is well documented and greatly deserved. As a person, she has the wonderful ability to lift a room full of tense chefs and lighten it with laughter. I have worked with her on many events, and you always know when Jan has arrived because you can hear her laugh and the laughing of others; Jan always smiles, and I will miss her dearly." 

Chef Mike Engel, Pastiche
"When I decided to open Pastiche in 2009, Jan was really generous with her time and advice in helping me flesh out my business plan. Any question I asked her, I got a straight answer. She was more help than she'll ever admit to being. Since opening, I’ve always been able to go to her for advice and also as a resource to find some good local producers and vendors. Her generosity is ongoing: Now that she’s closing, she’s let us hire her bar man, David, to enhance what we’re doing here with his cocktail ingenuity and quiet professionalism.

"I feel that Jan is one of my two or three best friends, and I’d do just about anything for her. I admire her for her excellent palate, for her wonderful, intuitive blending of cuisines to produce something that is as unique and exciting as she is, and for her loyalty to her friends, staff and customers. I’m going to have to find a new favorite restaurant now." 

Chef Joe Muench, Black Shoe Hospitality
"[Jan Kelly] is one of the kindest and most caring chefs I've known. I always feel like she is a mentor to anyone that comes in contact with her. Her talents are timeless and her demeanor is one of kindness and hospitality. I've worked with her in many collaborative settings and it's always a pleasure to learn and discuss our craft. She will be missed in this community and wherever she goes she will always bring joy to the ones around her. Her style is always reflecting her timeless skills in the chef community."

Chef Justin Aprahamian, Sanford and Like Minds
"Jan Kelly: Such a great and fun chef. Someone I will miss greatly as she moves back west to be with her family. A true friend in the community of chefs, she was always warm and super supportive of peers across the board. Made amazing food and I feel lucky I've had the opportunity to work with her on so many dinners and events. I still owe her for being one of the chefs who cooked at my wedding!!" 

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.