Obituary: Robert R. Kelly / Chef worked at many local restaurants over 64 years
Sept. 29, 1924 - Feb. 28, 2013
March 2, 2013 5:00 AM
Chef Bob Kelly at Peters Place in August 2003.
By Bob Batz Jr. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Chef Bob Kelly was renowned as one of the hardest-working people in the Pittsburgh restaurant industry -- so hard-working, that after a party thrown for him in 2003 after 55 years in the business, he didn't retire.
He kept on working.
"What a legend -- he's been cooking in Pittsburgh probably longer than anybody alive," marveled a fellow chef at Peters Place at the time, when Mr. Kelly was banquet chef. "The man has stuffed 2 million chicken breasts."
Mr. Kelly, 88, of Bridgeville, died Thursday at Forbes Hospice in Bloomfield after a bout with cancer.
But he still was sometimes working 10- and 12-hour days until this past October, when he had a mini stroke, said his friend and former co-worker Carrie Butler. She's the one who organized his party. She realized he never was going to retire.
The party was a memorable one, attended by scores of chefs, co-workers and customers from the landmark restaurants where Mr. Kelly worked: Poli's in Squirrel Hill, starting in 1949, for 14 years; then Louis Tambellini on Mount Washington and later on Route 51 for 20 years; and starting in 1982, at Peters Place, which was Gregory's until Michael and Bill Peters purchased it in 1984 from legendary restaurateur Frank Blandi.
Only Peters Place outlasted Mr. Kelly.
Owner Mike Peters, who's been in the business five decades, figures he has employed 8,000 or more people, and none worked like Mr. Kelly did. He also lauded his dedication to his family. "He was not just a great chef, but he was also an exceptional person."
As recounted in a richly detailed August 2003 profile by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette food editor Suzanne Martinson, Mr. Kelly was one of eight children of poor tenant cotton farmers near Rosebud, Texas. It was while attending North Texas State Teachers College that he worked in his first restaurant, washing dishes.
Upon enlisting in the Army in 1942, he was appointed first cook, serving thousands of soldiers, until he was sent to Europe to serve as a tail gunner in B-17 bombers.
While posted in Virginia, he met Mary Votilla, a girl from Greenfield, which is why the newlyweds moved there in 1945.
Mr. Kelly got an office job at Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., but switched to Poli's to support his family, which grew to two daughters and a son. Often, on weekends, the cook would take side jobs at the Edgewood Country Club.
He really loved the work, said his son, Bob Kelly, of Whitaker. "He woke up every day and that's what he thought of." He was good at it, and a generous teacher.
"His personality was quiet and humble and unassuming," Ms. Butler said.
At Tambellini, he earned the title executive chef. He was head chef at Peters Place, where most recently he was banquet chef.
His family said he worked hard at therapy, too, so he could go back to the restaurant.
"He officially retired yesterday," said his son-in-law Joe Calfo of Brookline.
Mr. Kelly's daughter, Linda Calfo, said that even in his in-and-out final hours, he was all about work. "He kept telling me, 'Get that prime rib out of the oven.' "
Mr. Kelly also is survived by his daughter, Mary Jo Novi of Murrells Inlet, S.C., a brother and sister, seven grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Visitation will be from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. today and from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Edward P. Kanai Funeral Home, Greenfield, where a service will be held at noon on Monday.