Chef Wynton Kelly has spent the last 10 years cooking in Bellingham, mixing his hunger for learning and his zest for big, bold flavors with a passion for satisfying his audience. He now hangs his chef’s hat at Bellingham’s Solstice Senior Living, and the residents are definitely enjoying the benefits.
While living in Dallas with his first wife 10 years ago, Kelly discovered Bellingham almost by accident. “I honestly didn’t know about Bellingham until we put resumes out, and the company that hired her moved us up here,” he says. He’s been taking full advantage of his surroundings ever since.
“I play golf and I do a lot of bike riding,” he says. He also calls himself an avid bird watcher, laughing at the memory of how that came to be. “I saw a bird I’d never seen before, looked in a book, and said, ‘Oh, that’s what that one is.’ Then I go identify another one. It just kind of grew until one day I noticed I had loaded up my car with binoculars and all that stuff and—I guess I’m going to bird watch!”
Originally from Dallas, Kelly studied cooking at a school much like Bellingham Technical College, then served an internship at a country club before moving into the professional world. When he describes the places he’s worked—from the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas to Whatcom County’s Silver Reef Resort, and then downtown Bellingham’s Chuckanut Brewery—it sounds as though he’s been moving toward smaller and smaller venues.
“Generally I do like being in big spots, and I love doing banquets. I’ve done fine dining, but I much more enjoy doing banquets, which brings me here,” he says, looking around the Solstice Community. “This job is like doing a banquet every day for 80 to 90 people.”
Having been at Solstice for just a month when we spoke, it was clear he’d already made a great impression. As we passed through the dining room, people smiled, waved and gave him the thumbs up. In the hallways, residents stopped to thank him for his food, and to tell him how much they’ve loved the meals since he came along. And it turns out that’s exactly what Kelly was looking for.
“When I was younger and got into this business, I wanted to see my name up in flashing lights,” he says. Kelly then tells a story about his early career in Dallas. He had dreamed up a new dish and asked a couple he was close with if they would be the first to try it. They tried it, they loved it, and seeing their reaction was a turning point for Kelly.
“Man, if I can do that all the time, why do I need flashing lights?” he remembers asking himself. “My flashing lights are the people that are sitting in my restaurant.”
Kelly had believed he needed to work in a restaurant with a 3-star Michelin review to have self-worth, but suddenly realized it could be found in other venues. “My self-worth, as you can see, now is taking care of these residents and making sure they’re happy,” he says of his role at Solstice Senior Living. “At the end of the day, if the residents or customers are happy, that’s all you can ask for.”
He has long created this happiness by approaching new food from street level. “I try to make everything I’m cooking as authentic as I can,” Kelly says, and describes getting insight from people who have grown up with the flavors he wants to understand. “I work with them so I can learn those flavors [and] keep learning new things. So I’m not just reading a recipe—I’m getting it from that girl’s grandmother or this guy’s sister or aunt.”
Kelly has brought that method to Solstice, as well. When a resident requests a dish, he uses the opportunity to open a dialogue with them. “If you know the recipes, if you know the spices, if you know the tricks of the trade, write me a recipe and I’ll play with it and you tell me when I get it right,” he promises.
His willingness to ask questions and learn from those around him hints at a humility that also comes across when he talks about the atmosphere of his kitchen. His early experiences included working with chefs who displayed the fiery temper that’s become a stereotype in the industry. “When I got into my mid-30s I thought, ‘I don’t need to yell, I don’t need to throw spoons,’” he recalls. “You can actually keep it light. We’ve got things to do, but if you’re not smiling while you’re doing it, then there’s no need for you to be in the kitchen.”
And for Kelly, it’s all about getting that smile. “Every time food is around, it’s usually around people getting together for all kinds of occasions. Food is all about love and happiness to me.”