Kelsey Jackson was born in Philadelphia but considers Atlantic City his hometown. The family moved there when Jackson was 11 years old, thanks to a family friend he considered an aunt.
His fondest memory is that this woman also owned the best southern restaurant in Atlantic City called "Marie's Soul Food Kitchen."
At times, it must have seemed like the entire family was involved with food.
"When I was a kid I stayed in the kitchen, cooking with my mother," says Jackson.
As Jackson got older, his mom suddenly passed away and he had to find work.
His brother used to work at Los Amigos in Atlantic City and got Kelsey a job washing dishes. It was a revelation to the young man.
"Early on, I realized, I don't like washing dishes," says Jackson. "So I worked my way up to be a nacho cook, which is like Mexican pizza, and appetizers."
By the time Jackson was 17, he was the youngest line cook at Los Amigos.
The long hours at work made school work suffer. Jackson failed his first period health class in his junior year, because he kept falling asleep.
His teacher gave him an option when he got to her class, senior year.
"She was like, look here Kelsey Jackson, I made sure that you had me first period again. So you've got two options. Do you want to graduate high school or do you want to continue to do what you're doing?"
Jackson went to Los Amigos the next day and put in his two-week notice.
After high school, Jackson's father, Jewel, got him a summer job as a cook's helper at the Tropicana. Jackson was back in the restaurant business.
In 1985, Jackson applied for a job at Trump's Castle. The chef who interviewed him asked one simple question.
"We have over 100 applicants applying for apprentice cook, why should I hire you?"
Jackson didn't have to think twice about his response.
"Look here. I'm a hard worker and a fast learner. You have a 90-day probation period. If you're not satisfied with my work within 60 days, you don't have to worry about firing me, I'll quit," says Jackson.
Jackson was hired on the spot and remained there for the next 17 years.
Jackson says they treated him well and leaving there was one of the hardest decisions he has had to make in his life. Jackson had something else on his plate.
"In my heart, I always wanted to open my own restaurant," says Jackson.
Over the years, Jackson had been checking out all of the southern cuisine-styled restaurants in the area. He felt like he could do better.
One of Jackson's jobs at the casino was to check on the buffet and to interact with the customers. When people would ask where they could get good soul food or southern cuisine and Jackson had no place to send them, he knew what he had to do.
"That was my dream, to one day open up a sit-down restaurant," says Jackson.
Fried fish, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, were all the things Jackson cooked by his mother's side, all the things he grew up eating.
Plus, even when he worked at Trump, he would get a call from his "aunt" when a cook walked off the line or got fired. "I used to help her out every now and then if she got in a jam," says Jackson.
Jackson had the menu, he just needed a place to cook.
Jackson noticed a restaurant on Main Street in Pleasantville that was never busy, no matter what time he drove by. The restaurant was sometimes so slow they would close up at 5 p.m. instead of the scheduled 9 p.m.
That was when Jackson told his wife, Kimberly, he had found a location for their first restaurant, Kelsey & Kim's Soul Food. That was back in 1996.
With only three or four tables, it wasn't quite the sit-down restaurant of his dreams, the one with breakfast, lunch and dinner and live entertainment.
In 2009, they opened Kelsey & Kim's Southern Cafe on Melrose Avenue in Atlantic City. Open for three meals per day, they had a live trio on the weekends, and the customers loved it.
But there was still one more thing Jackson wanted to do and when the property where the former Redding's in Atlantic City became available, Jackson's trifecta of restaurants was complete.
Kelsey's is a supper club that serves three meals per day, the kind of food Jackson was raised on, and offers plenty of live music, mostly a platform for local musicians, with no cover charge.
Kelsey's represents Atlantic City in a way customers used to have to go to Philly, New York or Washington, D.C. to find. A restaurant where the staff loves what they do and takes pride in showcasing local food and talent.
And when people talk about where to go for great soul food in Atlantic City, Jackson wants people to mention Kelsey's in the same breath as the other iconic eateries that are part and parcel of his hometown's history.
The menu includes southern fried chicken and waffles, fried whiting and cat fish, and slow-smoked pork ribs with Kelsey's own spice rub and homemade barbecue sauce. One of the most popular dishes on the menu is shrimp & grits.
"We make our grits the way I was raised on them," says Jackson. With only salt, pepper, water, and a little bit of milk, cooked until tender and finished with butter.
The recipe is from Chef Willie Lewis, Jackson's friend and mentor.
1545 Pacific Ave., Atlantic City
Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays to Thursdays; 4 p.m. to
2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Mondays. Brunch:
10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Happy Hour: 4 to 7 p.m. daily.
Kelsey & Kim's
52 N. Main Street, Pleasantville
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Sundays
Kelsey & Kim's
201 Melrose Ave., Atlantic City
Hours: 7 a.m. to
10 p.m. Mondays to Sundays