By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Mar 12, 2012 at 9:02 AM

Meritage chef and owner Jan Kelly is still stunned that she is a semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation Award. She learned about the honor last month from an employee who had read the news at

"I didn't even know that I had been nominated, that I was being considered," the affable restaurateur recently said while chatting at Meritage's bar. "I'm not a competitive person. I just want to enjoy what I do."

Kelly is among 20 persons named semifinalists for the prestigious best chef's award in the Midwest region. Dan Van Rite of Hinterland and Justin Aprahamian of Sanford are also on the list, which will be narrowed down to five next Monday.

"I never expected in my wildest dreams to have my name linked to a James Beard Award," Kelly said. It's not that she doesn't do good work, she quickly added, but a $24 New York Strip steak is the most expensive item on Meritage's menu. She expected the most prestigious restaurant awards in the country to be focused on more upscale establishments.

Kelly was born into a Southern California fine dining family. Her parents were kitchen adventurers at home, and in 1972 they opened The Hobbit, an unusual gourmet restaurant in Orange, Cal. Kelly's brother now owns it.

Located in a Spanish-style house, The Hobbit offers only one seating of a seven-course dinner a night. The experience begins with hors d'oeuvres served in the restaurant's wine cellar, and customers are invited into the kitchen during the dinner.

Although she liked to eat, Kelly didn't plan on entering the family business. Wild animal trainer was her vocational goal.

"I loved food. I didn't know I liked cooking," she explained.

Kelly started working at The Hobbit, taking reservations and doing some kitchen prep chores while plotting her career path in the animal world. She found it appealing.

That led to her working in two restaurants in Santa Cruz, Cal. One of the jobs was a temporary kitchen fill-in for an injured employee, and it changed Kelly's life. Although she was hired to make salads and shuck oysters, a classically-trained French chef became her mentor.

"It was the 1970s, and there were no women chefs," she said. "Women worked the salad station, and maybe made desserts. But he (the chef) made a point of showing me things.

"It was such a great experience. That was the catalyst for me. If that hadn't happened, I probably wouldn't have gone on."

Kelly also worked for a classically trained Swiss chef in Santa Cruz, and she started ascending the kitchen ladder, doing a three-year stint as a pastry chef. She eventually returned to her family's restaurant, serving as chef there.

The move to Milwaukee, which came in 1995, was precipitated by Kelly's husband Gary, a former speed skater who had trained at the old Olympic outdoor rink at State Fair Park and gone to school at UWM. He came to Milwaukee every summer for a reunion with old friends, and Jan was quite taken with the city on her first visit here.

"I fell in love with Milwaukee. The people were friendly, the food was fun, and it was so green, my eyes hurt," she said. "I come from Southern California, where it is brown in the summer."

Jan was immediately ready to move here. "I had never lived anywhere but California," she explained. "But my husband said, you haven't been there in winter."

When Gary was offered a job here a few years later, Jan was ready to go, tough winters or not. Her first job was as sous chef at the old Delafield House, and she also held that position at The Knick and the Woman's Club of Wisconsin. Other kitchen jobs included the old North Shore Bistro and Metro in the Hotel Metro.

Kelly developed a public following while she was the executive chef at the late Barossa, and two months after that restaurant closed in 2007, she opened her own place, Meritage, in Washington Heights. The building had housed The Highlander for many years, and it was Indigo, a martini bar, before she and her husband bought the structure.

"I am blessed," she said. "Not everyone gets to do the thing they love, and I do. I couldn't have done what I do here anywhere else. Opening a restaurant in California is so outrageously expensive."

Meritage's seasonal menu is known for a creative flair that often has ethnic influences. Think Asian braised chicken in a soy and ginger broth with bok choy and Chinese noodles. Or bison stacked enchiladas, with chipotle sweet potatoes and red chili sauce.

"My parents had us eating everything," Kelly said. "I remember them making tempura for us.

"You will see a lot of ethnic influences on our menu at Meritage. I try to approach ethnic in a different way, do something slightly different with it. I try to have fun with it.

"I like to give people a new flavor with a familiar dish. Owning a restaurant and being a chef, I want people to trust me. I want people to not be afraid to eat outside of the box."

I asked Jan a few standard chef questions:

OMC: What is your favorite Milwaukee restaurant?

Jan: I love Pastiche. I love Mike Engel's cooking. It's always delicious, and it is always relaxing to be there.

OMC: What is your favorite cuisine to eat?

Jan Kelly: How I feel on a given day. I love sushi. I love Indian food. Being from Southern California, I love Mexican food.

OMC: Do you cook at home?

JK: Yes – simple things like roasted chicken with vegetables, leg of lamb.

OMC: Do you eat dessert?

JK: I'm not really a dessert person. I would rather have a glass of port and some cheese.

OMC: What is the best thing about your job?

JK: The people, and the fact that every day is different. It is never routine. This is a people business. I would not be good in a cubicle.

OMC: The worst thing about the business?

JK: The hours.

OMC: Do you have a guilty food pleasure?

JK: Candied orange slices.

OMC: What is the thing you most want your customers to know?

JK: Tell us if you are dissatisfied. I love hearing the good stuff, but I want to know the bad stuff, too.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.