Last Wednesday, Chef Matt Kelly was on his way to the YMCA when he got a call from his prep cook telling him that there was an explosion next to one of his restaurants, Saint James Seafood.
“My first reaction was complete guilt, and I was terrified,” says Kelly.
As the owner of five Durham restaurants, Kelly has a lot of staff to look out for. For the past fifteen years, he’s been a catalyst for downtown Durham’s transformation into a hub for fine dining. He started his tenure on the Durham restaurant scene in 2005 when he became co-owner and executive chef at Vin Rouge. Since then, he’s opened Mateo Bar de Tapas, Mothers & Sons Trattoria, Lucky’s Delicatessen, and most recently, in 2017, he opened Saint James Seafood on West Main Street, around the corner from a building that until last week housed a coffee shop called Kaffeinate.
The blast—triggered by a gas leak—killed Kaffeinate’s owner, Kong Lee, injured at least twenty-five others, leveled the Kaffeinate location, and damaged fifteen buildings in the Brightleaf area, including Saint James’s, which along with Torero’s Mexican Restaurant next door, have been condemned by the city. (The INDY couldn’t immediately reach the owners of Torero’s).
The call dropped shortly after the prep cook frantically uttered the news that there had been an explosion.
“I don’t know if he hung up the phone, but he was clearly in shock,” Kelly says. “I called him back immediately and asked where he was and if everyone was OK.”
The prep cook assured Kelly that everyone at Saint James was fine, and he knew because he was still inside the restaurant. “I told him to get out of there and run as far away from the building as he could,” Kelly says.
While the city has determined the building can’t safely be occupied as is, Kelly plans to reopen in the same location once repairs are made and the building can again pass inspection.
“We were very fortunate. Not all of our neighbors were as fortunate as we were,” he says.
Last Friday, when Kelly was finally able to enter the building to inspect the damage, the first thing he noticed was the lingering smell of smoke. But there was a lot less damage than what his neighbors experienced.
“The damage was really random within our place, but we are really fortunate,” Kelly says. “We have these giant globes that go over the dining room, and some of those globes exploded. But then again, we have champagne flutes that are standing upright. It’s really bizarre.”
Many staff members are still shaken up from their proximity to the explosion and Lee’s death, Kelly says. Some are also struggling from being out of work while the restaurant is closed.
“We are definitely shucking a lot less oysters right now,” says Kelly. “But [we] have been receiving support nonstop from friends and family and people all over the place.”
Daniel Sartain, co-owner of Bar Virgile, started a GoFundMe page called the Durham Restaurant Workers Fund in support of all of the restaurant workers in the area who are out of work after the explosion. By yesterday, it had raised $19,000.
Kelly also offered some Saint James employees jobs at his other restaurants while they wait for the seafood restaurant to reopen.
“A lot of people worked at those other restaurants before they worked at Saint James, anyway, and that is great,” Kelly says.
Kelly plans to reopen Saint James in the same location. While the timeline and other details remain unclear, the building was evaluated on Friday by a structural engineer, who determined that it was fit to eventually host the restaurant again, Kelly says—even though the building is currently considered a condemned structure.
Some of the details have yet to be ironed out, partly because the restaurant is in a building that contains other businesses, and all of the occupants have to work together with the city to determine how to move forward.
“There are so many layers,” says Kelly. “We’ve got the city, we’ve got multiple insurance companies, we’ve got multiple landlords in the conversation. It is just complex.”
Kelly has been deluged with calls from friends and family thinking a condemned sticker on the front of the building means the restaurant can never re-open.
“When we think of the word condemned in a building, we think it means you can never go back in it,” Kelly says. He says hopes to restore some normalcy to both his staff and the neighborhood as soon as possible.
“[The explosion] has definitely affected our team dramatically,” Kelly says. “But one of the biggest things people can do is when that area is normal is come out and support us, our neighbors, and the Brightleaf community.”
Correction: This story originally indicated that Urban Ministries of Durham had offered to pay Saint James employees to work in its soup kitchen. Instead, according to UMD development director Joe Daly, a donor suggested that Saint James employees could volunteer at the soup kitchen. That sentence has been removed.