A Slice of Heaven

Joe and Liz Kelleher keep the home fires burning
in their hidden Green Valley ranch

By Jim Dodson     Photographs by Amy Freeman

 

This,” Joe Kelleher says with a wry little grin as he stokes up the flames of his backyard pizza oven, “is the known center of the universe.”

In a sense, Joe and his wife, Liz Kelleher, have found the best of both worlds — and certainly the center of their universe — in a  typical yet gorgeously renovated Green Valley ranch house tucked into a verdant corner on a high and heavily forested ridge above Greensboro’s seven-acre Cascade Park.

As Joe tends to the hardwood coals of his one-of-a-kind wood-fired oven he crafted by hand — more on this engineering feat in a Green Valley moment — hummingbirds flit among  the late-summer blossoms of Liz’s lush woodland garden. All at once, you get the fleeting feeling of visiting fortunate former-city friends, urban flatlanders who traded the grind of city life for a retreat in the untrammeled country. In short, the sense of splendid (if suburban) isolation is wildly palpable.

“We love this house because it feels like a house in the forest to Joe but is close enough for me to walk to Harris Teeter,” Liz allows with a coy little smile of her own as she shapes out the fresh dough for Joe’s homemade pizzas on the work counter of her  blissfully uncluttered kitchen. She recalls how even before she set foot in the house in June of 1991, she knew this little abode was perfect for their growing family of five.

“I took one look at the backyard,” she adds, “and I knew Joe would love it. And why not? A beautiful forest began at the end of the driveway.”

Despite growing up in cities — Liz in Raleigh, Joe on Cornwallis Drive in Greensboro (“Before Cone Boulevard was built!”) — the great outdoors in general, and forests in particular, beckoned the inner nature child of both Joe and Liz. According to script, fate introduced them at N.C. State in the 1970s where both were studying forestry. After marrying and working their first jobs in the forestry business down in Bertie County and Lake Waccamaw, respectively, the couple returned to Greensboro, where Joe went  into business with his brother and father, and later opened his own firm specializing in fine hardwoods.

“In those days, we had a small house on the north side of town with three little kids,” Liz remembers. “And not a lot of room for a growing family. We moved, basically, for the schools on the west side of town and were fortunate to find the perfect small house with lots of rooms and plenty of doors! For privacy.”

“That’s important,” Joe deadpans,” in a small house.”

During the summer of 1991, a real estate agent found them the modest 1,800-square-foot ranch perched on the edge of a forested ravine — four bedrooms, two baths, a living room, and cozy den with a fireplace, plus a nice eat-in kitchen. “It fit like a glove,” says Liz. “We found home.”

Time and childhood have a way of passing quickly, especially for busy parents. In 2006, with the young ’uns (two girls and a boy) suddenly grown and flown, Joe added a dramatic screened porch with a cathedral ceiling to the back of the property, which quickly became the couple’s favored morning and evening spot for coffee, talk and reading. Just under a decade later, they embarked on a long-planned renovation using local builder Rob Wilcox of Design/Build Service Remodeling.

“I’d been collecting designs I liked and renovation ideas from magazines and the Houzz website for a long time,” says Liz, who nevertheless hired a local designer to consult with her on how to create the ideal “forever” house for a very active couple that was nearing retirement age. “All I knew at the start was that I wanted a house, and especially a kitchen, that was open, bright and sunny — not cluttered and as serene as possible.”

To accommodate this vision, the couple blew out an outside utility room to provide for a kitchen expansion that included customized white cabinetry with dramatic black soapstone counters and artful gallery lighting that adds a nice theatrical flair. A removed den wall opened up the space even more, effectively doubling the prime gathering room’s size, while creating an enhanced dining room area that flows seamlessly through the main portion of the house, giving the entire house an airy feel. “Whenever we entertain or the kids come home with friends or family, everyone congregates in the kitchen area anyway, so we decided why not open up the space,” notes Liz. “That has proved to be a very good decision. We’ve had everything from bridal parties and holidays in this room.”

A cleverly reworked foyer provided a wider entryway and an expanded home office where Joe — now a forestry consultant who assembles heritage lands for philanthropic clients — works whenever he isn’t scouting the hills for The Conservation Fund out of Chapel Hill or for his clients. Liz, a longtime staffer at Friendly Center’s beloved Extra Ingredient, has her own home organizing area in a corner of her kitchen.

Adding to the dominant woodland theme, Liz selected a Benjamin Moore painting scheme called “gray cashmere” that adds both a unifying sense of color and a subtle psychological serenity. “It’s very calming — very spa,” she says with the same coy smile as she finishes up the pizza dough and bowls of meat and veggie fixings for the pizza production about to commence out of doors in the Certified Wildlife Habitat that is their suburban backyard.

Not surprisingly, Joe’s version of a home “spa” is out on the patio. Two years ago, while grilling on their frequently used patio chimney, he was inspired to take on an even more ambitious project of constructing his own wood-fired oven.

“I really wanted one forever and got it in my head that I wanted to try and build my own outdoor oven for baking bread or making pizza,” he explains. Joe first researched their availability online and found that most were made in New Zealand or Australia and could set you back as much as 10 grand.

He enterprisingly found a stove guru living in Asheville who took him in hand and explained how to construct a “serious” working, Old World, wood-fired oven from scratch. The process involved the elaborate layered construction of a solid platform made of wood and structural steel covered by perlite concrete, a fine silicone sand, firebricks and stucco. In a stroke of ingenuity, Joe used a 30-inch rubber exercise ball to mold the oven’s distinctive ceramic-domed ceiling, added boiler insulation, more perlite, stucco and finally a coat of white paint that makes the entire contraption look a little like Chilly Willy’s igloo.

Joe calculates that he spent about $1,200 to build his backyard masterpiece.

“But, oooh!” says fire-master Kelleher, “What it does to the taste of food!”

The couple inaugurated Joe’s oven for the first time on Independence Day in 2016, delighting their neighbors and friends with fire-cooked pizzas that have quickly become — along with amazing chicken wings seasoned by Roland’s Rub, a seasoning Joe found on one of his forestry sojourns — the Kellehers’ signature backyard fare. Not surprisingly, their al fresco evenings have trebled ever since that day.

“It’s taken us even more outdoors,” Liz says.

“In fact, regardless of weather, we rarely come inside these days,” jokes Joe — who, indeed, keeps a remarkable little working shed nimbly tucked above the ravine where he makes furniture and fiddles with various projects, including his homemade cooking implements. One half expects to see them soon go on the shelves at the Extra Ingredient.

Inside the dome, meanwhile, chunks of oak and hickory raise the cooking temperature upwards of 1,600 degrees, cooking one of Liz’s delectable pizzas in as little as two minutes — three tops if Joe opts to add “leoparding” char by holding the pizza close to the flames with a baker’s tool — one he made by hand, of course.

When it comes out, the pizza is bubbling, gorgeous, striped by the flames, better than anything you’d find at a local house of pizza.

“How is it?” the hosts asks his guest.

“Which do you mean?” replies his guest, tucking into a wedge. “The house or the pizza?”

“Whichever you prefer?”

“Both are a slice of heaven,” comes the answer.   OH

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