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Kelly Fitzgerald brings more than 40 years experience to Bistro 112

October 16, 2012|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Kelly Fitzgerald has been chef at Bistro 112 in Shepherdstown, W.Va., for a year. He has also worked in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Photo by Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series of profiles of local restaurant chefs.

Kelly Fitzgerald has a pretty impressive chef's resume. He's worked at upscale hotel restaurants in Washington, D.C., and New York City and prepared food for entertainment VIPs and political elites.

So, after 40-plus years in the business, where did he go for his next gig? Shepherdstown, W.Va.

In September, Fitzgerald celebrated one year as chef of Bistro 112, a country-style French restaurant on German Street.

"As an experienced chef, (something like this) — farm to table, the best produce and meats you can get, to try to create good food for a 75-seat restaurant — how could I say no?" he said. "This is what you look for — it's good food, but it's the passion. It's not just numbers. It's about people truly enjoying themselves."

Fitzgerald stepped out of the kitchen for a few moments in late summer to sit and talk about French cooking, a disciplined kitchen and training the next generation of chefs.

What was food like for you when you were young?

My grandfather owned two dairy farms, but he invented one of the first refrigerated dairy tanks for milk, and he had his own manufacturing business. So he was a suit-and-tie guy that they called a gentleman farmer. He went to the office, but then he went home and he had a couple-few acres, and that's where we grew everything. That's how I learned about fruits and vegetables.

He liked the fresh corn, fresh food. So my grandmother, even though they were, like, executives, she made homemade bread, jam, butter. And I still make fresh jam today from that introduction.

So from a young age, I tasted the real butter, the real corn — I mean, minutes from the field.

How did you get started in cooking?

My father was very strict with snacks: Premade cookies, he'd ration them out. We were allowed to have three a day. And one piece of hard candy.

And my stepmother, she never cooked a meal in her life. Her mother cooked, which was just basic food. Not even memorable — they would make things out of cans, frozen stuff, like TV dinners.

But my mother had this cookbook — "The American Home Woman's Cookbook." It had candy, aspics, everything. It was like the American version of (French encyclopedia of gastronomy) "Larousse (Gastronomique)."

So then, my father said, "If you make it, you can eat as much as you want." So I started reading that book, making recipes, making cookies, fudge, molasses taffy, different stews. So I could eat what I wanted.

When did you start working in a restaurant?

I got to be a teenager, and my allowance wasn't enough, so I got a job as a dishwasher. I ended up advancing to apprentice chef. And the chef took me under his wing at 15, and he took me through every station. And he put in the incentive to do well. Like, if we were making crepes with a pan. I had three tries. If I didn't have the technique in three tries, he sent me to wash pots until he decided I was focused again.

Kitchens can be intense places to work.

It was pretty intense. The chef I worked under was David Snyder at the Treadway Inn in Pennsylvania. We had white-glove inspection once a month in the kitchen. So when I was the head dishwasher, the first time I was photographed I was 15, (awarded for) the cleanest kitchen in Chester County. So it really opened my eyes, you know: This is a career. You get recognition. You get publicity if you do the job correctly.

You don't see much white-glove inspection nowadays. That's a pretty strict standard.

I was blessed with good teachers who took the time to mentor, even discipline properly. And educate properly. David Snyder was Culinary Institute (of America) trained, and he had the books, so he trained me, gave me tests.

How long did you work with him?

He moved on after two years, and the crew wasn't the same. Then I moved into a bakery.

A bakery — that's a whole different kind of cooking.

Right, but (I qualified for the job) because I had helped my grandmother make the fillings and the dough, and I used to make my own.

What came after the bakery?

I got out of high school and moved to Washington, D.C., and I got a good job at the George Meany Center (for Labor Studies) at the international headquarters of the AFL-CIO. I got to meet George Meany, and I would make miniature pastries there for breakfast. Even at a young age, big doors opened.

My first silver catering party was for King Hussein of Jordan. They call it silver catering, which was high end. I was like, "Wow. A king! My first catered party was a king." I did other banquets (before this), but the catered party was a different category of food and excellence and service.

So I had good mentors, like Billy Dennis — he knew everybody in D.C. — and they trained me. And it was a union job, so I had good credentials, so all the doors opened for high-end properties in D.C., from the Georgetown Inn, Georgetown Mulberry House, the Hay-Adams, Mason Blanche. So I was around great chefs. I just carried on from there.

Went to New York City, worked at the United Nations for a year. It was a seasonal type thing, so when there was a layoff, I worked nights at a nouvelle-style restaurant, where I cooked for James Earl Jones, Rock Hudson. I did Christopher Reeves' pre-wedding party.

I cooked for Elvis Presley for three weeks at the Baton Rouge Hilton six months before he died. I had to live at the hotel for that, in case he wanted to eat at 3:30 in the morning.

So I've been around. Been around great chefs, and they train you. It's not like now, where it's wide open.

Now you're here at Bistro 112. The last time I ate in this building, the restaurant was still Stone Soup. Same kind of relaxed attitude and quality food.

Yes. It's not that pretentious. You can enjoy the food. And the prices don't scare you.

Now, the restaurant has "bistro" in the name, so it's French-style food?

Well, I call it "paysanne" — peasant. Deb likes to call it creative French food, which is basically the same thing. It's just French style.

Some things I try to be authentic with, like a cooking technique, if it's French or Italian. I cook Asian, also. But what I learned in studying the different ethnic cooking is saute is saute, broil is broil, sear is sear, you know what I mean? Everybody uses the same techniques. Now the ingredients are different, and some of the techniques will be different.

And French food is very regional. It varies. There's a big difference between the cheeses from the north to the south to the east to the west. There's big influences on the borders. On the Mediterranean, there's Greek influences. You go (east), it's closer to Italy, so they have different flavors. Each one of those areas have tendencies to go with certain flavors, certain herbs, certain wines, and if you understand it, it's easy to adapt or fuse it.

How much of your ingredients come from the local area?

I'd say at least a third, if not more.

You must cook seasonal dishes as well.

A little bit. I inherited a lot of the menu from Stone Soup. I readjusted most of it. Added on. But the core menu's not mine. I'm hoping this next year (to make some changes).

How big is your staff?

Five. I basically do everything. They work the line and put the food on the plate. But most of them have no experience at all. We were just in Washingtonian (magazine). We were in the Best of Shepherdstown, which is almost unheard-of. In our first year. They usually want you to be in business from two to four years. I guess we're doing things right.

There are a lot of good places here in Shepherdstown.

I know that. I know our product line is good. I'm pretty good. There's only 75 seats. It's not like I can afford four chefs. So I need (my staff) to be better, and they rose to the occasion. They were phenomenal.

I had to apprentice for years. But now it's different. They got jumped in, and they're doing phenomenal work. And even though they change every two months, I've been able to keep a pretty strict line on quality.

Seems like it would take discipline to do consistent work.

And that's what I think we have accomplished. Not that I'm bragging, but I think I've done a good job so far. I'm used to doing a great job, and there is a difference. I'm a little frustrated.

The group I have right now, most of them have been young females. They say, "I've never worked in a kitchen, but if you give me a chance, I'll do a good job." And this one girl, she had some home economics in high school or something. I showed her (how to do something) one time, and that was (all she needed). But it was more work than she realized, and she burned herself out.

How do you keep from burning yourself out? You've been doing this for a long time.

I say I do a slow, 12-hour marathon every day. Six days a week, sometimes seven. But I've trained that way. It's isometrics, proper breathing. I sit properly and ... open up my diaphragm, and get fresh air in.

It's like being a ballet dancer — maintaining good posture.

Yeah, though being a chef gives you bad posture — leaning over all the time. But I practice those things every day. So I can go the distance.

That must wear you down.

I'm fairly disciplined, and the group in the kitchen, they're getting disciplined, even though after, like, six hours, they're tired. They want a break. I'm like three times their age and I'm not getting a break. But by doing this over and over again, you're like an athlete. It's like a boxer going into a ring. If you're not focused, you get beat up.

What do you do to chill out?

Basically, I take walks. And that's what's perfect around here. I can walk to the river or ride to the mountains. It's an ideal place. Because the hectic inner city stuff, the noise pollution, isn't here. So actually, I just like to sit under a tree sometimes and meditate and breathe. And nature just takes (stress) away from you naturally.

What do you eat when you're on your own?

We eat a varied diet, but it's all fresh, mostly organic and natural food. Most of the time, I like more simple food at home, just because I have 150 different flavors (at work), you know, from different desserts, the meats, the sauces, different seafoods, the vegetarian. So I tend to more plain food at home.

Do you do the cooking, or does your wife?

She's a chef also. She's a baker. She works three days a week here. Her cookies are great, and her cakes. She made cookies for the 250th anniversary of Shepherdstown.

How did you meet? Were you chefs before you met?

I was. She did some catering here and there. Her father loved great food. He had his own barbecue pit, and on Sundays in Philly, we'd go down to the Italian market. We'd cook pheasant, goose, whatever he wanted to eat. It might be a baby pig. It might be a leg of lamb. It might be a pork this or that, and whatever that he wanted to eat for the weekend. Every Sunday was like a great meal. Neighbors would come over. He fed everybody.

We used to cook for him. Now we've been married 24 years.

Twenty-four years is no mean feat.

I know. I look at my father, my sister, my brother all got divorced after so many years. (A good marriage) is about communication and respect. And compromise. It's never 50-50. Sometimes you got to put in 75 percent.

What are you goals here? How do you want to evolve the menu.

Well, I want to be a little more distinguished — to be classic French, not just creative French. So you can pair wines with specific foods, and there's more French authenticity to the wines and cheeses and the meats.

How do you and Bistro 112 owner Deb Turner work that out?

She tells me what she wants, and sometimes I tell her, "Deb, that's not feasible to do. It's an idea that you would like, but from my experience, it won't work. It's too specific to one or two people.' As a chef, you learn to have a general taste. Some things are specific, but you have to please the numbers. It's a compromise.

Yes, you've got to hit a balance for the business to be successful long term.

My long-term goal is to put up fresh, good food with the French flair. Some things tend to be authentic — authentic French food tends to be very expensive.

It takes a lot of work to build a good reputation, and that's why I've been pretty strict on everything, from who I get the food from, to how I get it from them. We're getting in a groove. People keep coming back, and new people are coming. I anticipate it getting better.

If you go ...

Bistro 112

112 W. German St., Shepherds-town, W.Va.

304-876-8477 or go to

Open noon to 9 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. for brunch; closed on Tuesdays

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