Peter X. Kelly fights against hunger, for Yonkers

As one of the Hudson Valley’s most prominent celebrity chefs, Peter X. Kelly has a story that’s well-known.

The self-taught chef has turned an operation that began in 1983 with a single restaurant in Garrison into The Xaviars Restaurant Group, comprising four (though soon to be two — more on that later) of the Hudson Valley’s most recognized fine dining establishments. Kelly’s restaurants have received The New York Times’ highest rating and the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. He has been named New York State Restaurateur of the Year, won a James Beard Award and appeared on multiple television shows. Anthony Bourdain dined at his X2O Xaviars on the Hudson in Yonkers while shooting an episode of his show “No Reservations.” Kelly even beat Bobby Flay in grilling up a cowboy ribeye on “Iron Chef.”

Point is, if you’re into the food scene in the Hudson Valley, you probably know at least something about Kelly. But while Kelly’s accolades in the food business have piled up, he’s also known for his willingness to give back. He was recognized in April by Lifting Up Westchester, an organization that provides aid to families and individuals in need, and has contributed in some way to more than a dozen charities. 

Kelly said he has felt a desire to help others in part because of his own life story. He was born in Yonkers, the 10th of 12 children.

“Coming from a big family, what was instilled in us at a young age was what my mother often said:  ‘I cried because I had no shoes, until I met the man who had no feet,’” Kelly said. “That’s sort of the way we try to look at things. So working in Westchester, where there is a lot of wealth and it’s one of the loveliest communities in the country, we don’t often think about how right here there’s a lot of people hungry every day.”

Kelly said that as an owner of high-end restaurants, it’s important to be aware of the fact that there are a lot of people who don’t have the option of eating at his restaurants and may struggle to find food at all.

That strikes at an issue he said is especially important to him — hunger. Along with Lifting Up Westchester, he’s worked with organizations such as Meals on Wheels, Table to Table and Westchester Coalition for Hungry and Homeless (which merged last year with the Food Bank of Westchester), and Part of the Solution, all organizations and programs that address hunger in some way. 

Kelly also worked with NewYork-Presbyterian/Hudson Valley Hospital to launch the Peter X. Kelly Teaching Kitchen in 2014. The kitchen is part of the hospital’s larger Harvest for Health initiative, which promotes healthy eating habits among patients and in the community. The program also works with the medical staff at the hospital to help patients improve eating habits. Chefs from the Westchester region come in and run dinners as part of the programs.

Kelly remembered shortly after 9/11 a large group of chefs came together to help keep the firefighters, police officers and other first responders on scene at Ground Zero well-fed. The Red Cross set up tents and small cooking areas, and Kelly was among dozens of chefs who volunteered time to make meals.

“Just because that’s what we knew how to do, so that’s what we did,” he said. “You’d get there and you’d find 200 pounds of rice, 10 cases of beans and you were just making whatever was there and cooking it in batches for thousands of people. And there were many, many people involved in that effort.”

In Kelly’s role as a mentor to young chefs and business owners, he said he has tried to push them to involve themselves and their businesses in the community as much as possible.

“Their help is needed in solving the problems in their communities,” Kelly said. “They don’t have to do dinner for millions of people, but they should participate with the groups working in their communities.”

Kelly’s X2O restaurant — built in Yonkers’ downtown Getty Square, with views of the George Washington Bridge and the Manhattan skyline — has been a centerpiece of the city’s efforts to revitalize its waterfront.

“This is a city that has been struggling for many, many years to get back to the place of gracious living it once was,” Kelly said. “When I decided to come back to Yonkers, I wanted to see if a restaurant could make a difference in the community.”

Now Kelly is focusing even more on that mission in Yonkers and at X2O. In September, he confirmed reports that he would look to sell two of his restaurants, Xaviars at Piermont and The Freelance Cafe & Wine Bar, also in Piermont The move leaves X2O and Restaurant X & Bully Boy Bar in Congers, along with a catering operation, as the whole of The Xaviars Restaurant Group. Paring down his restaurant portfolio will allow him to spend more time with each restaurant, Kelly said. 

“Every time I’m at one restaurant, someone else is at another,” he added. “And people come and I want to be able to say ‘hello,’ because that’s how my restaurants were built, on interactions with guests. And as we grow, it’s harder for me to do that.” 

Kelly said he’s in talks with more plans for initiatives in Yonkers but nothing developed enough yet to announce. Still, while leading from X2O in the center of the city’s downtown revitalization, he’s confident in Yonkers’ future, citing new development, its close proximity to Manhattan, diverse communities and urban feel.

“Yonkers has been coming back for the past 50 years,” Kelly said. “But I truly believe it’s at a tipping point now.” 

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