Pretty much all of us dabbled in breadmaking during the first bout of lockdown, learning what a sourdough starter was and how to keep it alive, dusting off the ol’ Dutch oven, and churning out lumpy loaves of varying consistency.
But when CIA-trained pastry chef Kevin Halim turned to breadmaking in the early days of the pandemic, with a restaurant-honed intensity and too much time on his hands, it was only a matter of days before he was churning out three, four, five experimental loaves a day. After initial elation, his exasperated husband Darren Oakley took to social media to cheekily complain about his “misfortune.” (“Lord help me, if I have to eat another chocolate babka.” “This is my second slice of bourbon-soaked cherry chocolate bread today. Seriously somebody save me.”) The likes, comments, and requests grew longer with every post. (“Do you have drive-thru?” “Now my turn to drool. You making deliveries?”)
Indonesian-born Halim and Oakley, a Poughkeepsie native, had just relocated to the area from Boston to open a brunch cafe when lockdown hit. “We didn’t know what that meant,” Oakley says. “But we quickly realized nothing was open. There was no place to buy furniture. So Kevin started baking bread.” Halim turned to his former colleague, Blue Hill head baker Adam Tan, to troubleshoot his loaves by phone. “It was like an online breadmaking class,” he says with a laugh.
When Halim’s daily output grew too great, Oakley entreated him to do something with the extras. “We said, ‘OK, let’s put this out curbside pick-up and see what happens,’” Oakley recalls. “It was three to four loaves the first day. Within 45 minutes, people were driving up to our apartment building to buy bread.” So the next day they did it again, and again the loaves were snatched up.
“We thought, people are driving from White Pains to buy bread? What is this?” Oakley recalls. “We were posting on our individual Facebook pages. It kind of just snowballed to the point where we thought, ‘Let’s create a Kelly’s page, give what we have to offer, ask two to three days' notice if people are looking for something specific. And it just went from there.”
Suddenly Oakley was running up and down the stairs every day to deliver fresh loaves to hungry folk, curbside, while Halim baked tirelessly in the kitchen. (“Thank god we only live on the second floor,” Oakley says.) And so, Kelly’s the brunch cafe morphed into Kelly’s the bakery, (the namesake is the couple’s adorable Pomeranian), as the pair started looking for a brick-and-mortar space to expand operations.
Kelly’s found a home in the North Point Commons mixed-use development on Delafield Street, and in mid-January opened its doors to a hungry public. “I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t know it was going to be this,” Oakley says. “We’re only three weeks in. The first day it was 9 degrees on Saturday, and we had people lined up around the block. The energy in here is infectious. It’s beyond expectation.”
They already have several regulars who come in daily (or sometimes twice daily) for a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich or to take home a loaf for themselves or a friend. These fast fans have become self-appointed ambassadors for Kelly’s, posting photos, raving to friends, and sharing spoils. An incredulous Oakley says, “Did you know people gift bread?” Turns out a gifted loaf is the best business card, with happy recipients in turn becoming faithful customers.
On a daily basis, Kelly’s serves up country sourdough loaves and baguettes, fresh croissants, and scones, plus a rotating specialty bread. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, it’s olive and onion, Thursdays it’s sunflower millets Fridays it’s chocolate and coffee-infused fig sourdough, and on Sunday it’s potato cheddar. The weekend also brings delicacies like ciabatta, babka, and cookies.
For now, Halim is using King Arthur Flour like the rest of us pandemic bakers, but he is working to source flour from Hudson Valley Farm Hub. And with a mill in the basement, he might even grind some of his own flour one day. “I am trying to use local and seasonal ingredients,” he says, “Unfortunately during winter, it’s a little tricky. When we start the summer season, we’re going to try to preserve as much fruit at its peak as we can.”
Most of the breads on offer have some sourdough leaven if not entirely sourdough based. One item on a long list of future plans is for Halim to experiment with sourdough croissants, which are currently made with conventional yeast. “At the moment, it’s only me baking, so it’s tricky to experiment outside of what I’m comfortable with,” he says. Sourdough or not, the croissants fly off the shelves, and the scones have already gained acclaim city-wide.
Kelly’s is currently functioning with a crew of five to six people, including Halim and Oakley, who runs front-of-house. Though it hasn’t been rolled out yet, Halim has already designed the vegetarian-centric brunch menu. Offerings will include brioche French toast, served with buttermilk custard and seasonal fruits ($9.50); tomato-basil shakshuka ($11); a seasonal frittata ($9.50); and a charred pear and kale salad, served with candied walnuts, goat cheese, pickled red onion, and a cilantro-lime dressing ($9.50). Meat-lovers will be able to order bacon, ham, or chicken sausage as a side.
For now, though, as the crew is still finding its sea legs, the offerings are limited to breakfast sandwiches, tartines (open-faced offerings like avocado toast ($6.50) or lox toast ($11)), and a Greek yogurt parfait ($7). And a barista is on-hand to turn out coffee drinks with beans from Millerton-based roastery Irving Farm and housemade syrups.
With training at Le Cordon Bleu and CIA, and big names like COI and Blue Hill at Stone Barns on his CV, Halim is sure to make a splash when the full menu does roll out. “Everyday is a new learning for me, which I like,” says Halim with a humility that belies the quiet dedication and perfectionism driving him.
Beyond the fulfillment of the couple's shared dream, Oakley is overjoyed to be back home and participating in the renaissance of his city. “Poughkeepsie needed this,” he says of the bakery. “The city is on the precipice of incredible growth, and I hope it keeps going. Growing up here, I’ve seen this surge of revival before but then it peters out. Now there is real momentum. People like Hudson & Packard, Revel 32, Cosimo’s—their stake in the city of Poughkeepsie is amazing. We came back in a trying time but we’re making the best of it.”