Cooking for a Cause

Published On 10/16/2016

Behind the scenes, in the back of the house.

In a hot, noisy, chaotic kitchen.

That’s where Chef Kelly English, of Memphis’ Restaurant Iris and The Second Line, is in his element. But on this spring night, in front of a crowd of 800 guests, the normally unassuming restaurateur takes to the stage.

As the host of Le Bon Appétit, a prestigious gourmet benefit presented by Le Bonheur Club, Kelly recruits renowned guest chefs from Memphis and across the country to support the efforts of Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

Hundreds of guests mill around the Pipkin Building, a cool warehousey venue next to the Liberty Bowl Stadium, munching on decadent, creative creations such as boudin topped with chicken fried cotton candy, maple vinegar custard with shiitake mushrooms and trout caviar and Lebanese lamb tartar.  Drinks are flowing from the city’s top mixologists, and desserts from top pastry chefs await.

When the time has come, Kelly walks to the stage, halts the band and takes the mic. Even though he has the spotlight, he turns the focus to what really matters most — the work at Le Bonheur Children’s and the patients it serves.

The night’s guest of honor is Le Bonheur patient Avery Downing, 17, who fell during a gymnastics practice when she was 13 and broke her back. She had surgery at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and went through extensive rehabilitation at an out-of-state facility.

The money raised from this year’s event, totaling $340,000, will help Le Bonheur Club fund an outpatient rehabilitation center at Le Bonheur Outpatient Center — East Memphis, meaning kids like Avery won’t have to travel far to get back to what matters most: childhood.kelly1

Kelly’s commitment to Le Bonheur and the biennial event in its third year has proven that he isn’t just a chef who writes a check at the end of the day; he’s a champion for the children of this community.

Kelly teamed up with Le Bonheur Club, founders of Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, five years ago to create Le Bon Appétit.

“I had done food events around the country, and there wasn’t anything like that in Memphis,” Kelly said. “I thought, ‘How fun would it be to bring in chefs from out of town, pair them with people in town and   then throw a big party for Le Bonheur?’ That’s really how this all started.”

Le Bonheur Club President Karen Carlisle says the Club was eager to partner with Kelly.

“Kelly has such a passion for our community,” said Carlisle. “We were over the moon that Kelly chose to support Le Bonheur. We were honored to walk hand in hand with Kelly and help him make his dream for Le Bon Appétit come true.”

Prepare for Impact

Kelly often tells one story when people ask why he does so much for Le Bonheur. It involves a bad fall and broken bones and time spent in a hospital built for adults when he was only a kid. He tells it quickly and well, focusing less on what happened and more on why he understands how Le Bonheur makes a real difference for the patients it serves with services tailored for children. His parents tell the story a little differently.Chef Kelly English_P3A6974

“Kelly has his own little narrative about what he went through when he was 6 years old, and it’s something that he really takes to heart,” said Kelly’s dad, Rex. “It’s just that for those first few hours, we didn’t really know if he’d ever be the same.”

Kelly was watching an airshow from the second story of his grandmother’s house in Lafayette, La., when he fell from the window. The damage was extensive.

“He had so many bad breaks – wrist, femur, upper arm – literally everything on the left side of his body was broken,” Rex recalled.

Initial X-rays indicated he may have also broken his neck.

“When Kelly fell out of the window, the doctors thought he honestly should be dead,” said Kelly’s mom, Stella. “When he fell, his arm hit a big clay pot, and if it hadn’t happened just that way … well, he’s got some kind of angel looking out for him.”

After doctors ran more tests and found that Kelly’s neck wasn’t broken, he was put on traction and then in a full-body cast. He spent two months in the hospital, an adult facility that also treated children.

“The hospital was everything a hospital should be. It’s just that it was a hospital built for adults,” said Kelly. “And hospitals can be big, scary places for kids. The environment is so sterile. It’s nothing like Le Bonheur.”

Kelly’s stay didn’t include the kind of resources you find at Le Bonheur, such as child life specialists who use toys and play for distraction during procedures. Playful hallway lights didn’t illuminate when you passed by, and there weren’t kid-friendly, interactive works of art on every floor. There weren’t machines built just for kids, so that X-rays deliver less radiation to the body, and not every doctor or nurse had received the extra training designated for the specific care of children.

After two months in the hospital, Kelly returned home, still in a full-body cast. “Kelly was a trooper, he always had such a good attitude,” said Rex.

Kelly rehabbed quickly, was out of his wheelchair by December and relearned to walk in a couple of months. By February, he went skiing for the first time on a family vacation.

“But did you know that injury was why he became a chef?” Rex asked.

His fall, it turns out, would change the course of his life.

The path to passion

After graduating from high school, Kelly was admitted to the University of Mississippi and went into pre-law. His dad made him a deal: He’d help his son with tuition, but Kelly would have to work for his spending money.

Kelly and his friends had a favorite hangout in Oxford, Miss., a catfish place called Cedars. They decided to get jobs there, and Kelly was hired on as a waiter. But on his first day, he wasn’t able to carry a tray.  The injuries sustained during his fall from the window had left him unable to fully bend his left wrist, so instead of becoming a waiter, he was sent back to the kitchen to work as a cook.

Kelly's career

Kelly English trained at the Culinary Institutes of America, one of the top culinary schools in America. While there, he landed an externship with the critically acclaimed New Orleans Chef John Besh, and after graduating at the top of his class, he went on to manage Besh’s restaurant in Tunica, Miss.

While in Tunica, Kelly frequented Memphis and decided that it was the city for his roots. He opened Restaurant Iris in 2008, and in 2009 earned the “Best New Chef” distinction from Food & Wine magazine. That same year, he became a finalist for the James Beard Award Best Chef: Southeast, appeared on Food Network and earned the Memphis Restaurant Association’s “Restaurateur of the Year Award.”

In 2012, he competed in the national Cochon 555 and was named Memphis’ “Prince of Porc.” A year later, he opened The Second Line, a casual eatery featuring New Orleans favorites, located next door to his flagship contemporary American fine dining restaurant. His empire has now grown to encompass four restaurants and a catering offshoot named Iris Etc.

Kelly moved up quickly through the kitchen ranks and soon became a restaurant manager. He’d found is niche but was worried what his parents would think if he abandoned his law ambitions.

“Kelly called his mom and asked what I would think if he decided to become a chef instead of a lawyer,”  aid his dad, Rex. “And Stella said, ‘I think he’d be delighted.’”

As his career took off, Kelly looked for ways to give back to the community. He met Le Bonheur CEO and President Meri Armour shortly after moving to Memphis, and once he toured the hospital, he found his charity of choice.

“I didn’t just want to write a check, I wanted to be a partner,” said Kelly.

Food for Thought

Le Bon Appétit is one of the most unique charitable events in the city, garnering upwards of $700,000 for Le Bonheur in its first three iterations. Kelly invites 15 guest chefs and pairs them with 15 locals. This year, the event touted Aaron Sanchez of Food Network’s “Chopped,” Hugh Acheson of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” Naomi Pomeroy, also of “Top Chef,” and the legendary John Besh, among others.

Many of the chefs who participate in the event aren’t familiar with the hospital beforehand, but Kelly’s passion for Le Bonheur wins new hearts to Le Bonheur year after year.

“When you see someone so emotionally invested in something, it’s really easy to get behind it,” said Chef Ryan Prewitt of New Orleans’ Peche Seafood Grill.

Le Bon Appétit is more than a culinary event. The chefs take time to serve the families at Le Bonheur. As soon as the chefs arrive in Memphis, they visit the hospital and also hit the kitchen in Le Bonheur’s home-away-from-home for out-of-town families, FedExFamilyHouse, where they cook breakfast for families in a group-style battle using fun, kid-friendly ingredients like candy bars and marshmallows.

“There was a moment, as we were touring the hospital, when we a saw a child being rolled to his room right after surgery, and as a parent, I was just overwhelmed with emotion,” said Prewitt. “Having grown up in Memphis, I was always aware of Le Bonheur and the exceptional pediatric care here; it’s just part of the fabric of Memphis, in many ways. But now that I have kids of my own, my experience of touring the hospital and being a part of this event was even deeper. Coming back to my hometown and being in a position to give back means a lot to me.”

“We all have talents, we all have skills, and that’s what we can use to give back,” said Kelly. “I get to cook for a living, so I’m going to cook for Le Bonheur for as long as they’ll let me.”