Kelly Wilson was always late," gripes Automatic Slim's owner Karen Carrier. "Every day, he was late. He was always late."
"That's true," adds Kevin Keogh, who managed Slim's for years before relocating to the Beauty Shop in Cooper-Young. "He was always late. Every single day."
"But you couldn't ever be mad at him," Carrier continues. "Most people who are late like that, you would take them into the office and talk to them, then write them up and put it in their file, and if things didn't change, you'd have to let them go. But not Kelly. He'd finally come walking in with a big grin. He'd say, 'Hey, Miss Karen, I've been out picking blueberries with my grandmother,' and he would always bring us fresh blueberries. Or he might say, 'Hey, sorry I'm late. I was watching a ball game with my dad.' These were the things that were really important to him. They were more important than work, that's for sure. Then he'd walk back into the kitchen and go to work."
In the summer of 2003 Kelly Wilson was murdered after getting off work in the wee hours of the morning. The crime has never been solved. Carrier has organized Commemoreat, a culinary tribute to Kelly on Sunday, June 6th, at Automatic Slim's from 6 to 11 p.m.
Kelly was a grill chef and loved by everyone who worked with him. Cooks are a notoriously cranky, crusty lot -- and for a good reasons. Kitchens get scalding hot, and in a place like Automatic Slim's, which can easily turn 400 to 500 seatings on a weekend night, the pressure to get the food out can be intense. But Kelly wasn't a typical cook. He did his job with a grin that, according to friends, never went away. When he had time to help out the waiters, he would. He'd help seat customers or collect the cover charge for the band. Restaurants can be cliquish places: The waiters hang tight, the kitchen staff stick together, and management has its own little thing going. But Kelly knew no boundaries. Every job was important. Nothing was ever beneath him.
"I'd see him at the door helping out the band," Carrier says, "and I'd say, 'Kelly, aren't you tired? Don't you want to go home?' And he'd say, 'No, Miss Karen, I'm fine.'"
Kelly's co-workers called him Fancy Pants. Chef's pants are notoriously ugly, baggy affairs that make scrubs and sweats downright stylish by comparison. But Kelly went out of his way to find chef's pants with bizarre prints and patterns. They became his trademark. He was also known as the Spud King.
"He went through this thing where he was making all kinds of crazy mashed potatoes," Keogh says. "Sometimes the ingredients could be out there, but they were always good." Cheetos mashed potatoes, anyone?
Ask anybody who knew him. Kelly was a country boy at heart (hence the mashed potatoes). And sometimes country boys will do country things. On the last night of his life, Kelly was about to leave downtown with Slim's sauté chef Scott McQueen, when he realized he had to go to the bathroom. He walked over to the Jolly Royal building on Gayoso to water the foliage. That's when McQueen heard the shots and saw that his friend was covered in blood. McQueen held Kelly while three strangers circled. Certain that Kelly was dead, the murderers scrambled into a (possibly) black car and drove away, leaving McQueen unharmed.
"Kelly must have just walked up on something," Carrier says. "Right place, wrong time. Wrong place, right time. Who knows? He was trying to take a leak. He was 24 years old.
"When I asked Erling Jensen [about Commemoreat], he said, 'I will make ostrich!'" Carrier exclaims. The roster of chefs assembled for Commemoreat reads like a who's who of Memphis fine dining. "We could have had a lot more too," Carrier says. "Everybody wanted to pitch in, but there's only so much room in the kitchen."
Chez Philippe will provide desserts. There will be ribs from the Rendezvous, and bacon-wrapped shrimp from Café Society. Huey's will grill mini-cheeseburgers -- Kelly's favorite food. Slim's will prepare jerked ribeye, Kelly's specialty. Other contributing restaurants include Yia Yia's, Tsunami, Wally Joe, McEwen's, the University Club, Felicia Suzanne's, the Grove Grill, Café 61, the 5 Spot, Do, Molly's, Garlands, Cielo, Ciao Bella, the Beauty Shop, and Another Roadside Attraction.
"Since we couldn't keep Kelly alive, maybe we can keep something else alive," Keogh says, expressing his frustration that his friend is dead and his killers are still at large.
"People who work in restaurants get off late," Carrier says. "We need somebody watching out for us after last call. It would be great to have more police protection then. It could have been any of us." n
All donations from Commemoreat go to the family of Kelly Wilson. For more information, call Automatic Slim's at 525-7948.