Food & Drink: Chef Melissa Kelly

The two-time James Beard award-winning chef opens a new version of her restaurant, Primo, at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes later this summer. We wanted to know more.

Primo chef/owner Melissa Kelly at the restaurant garden beside the JW Marriott. ROBERTO GONZALEZ

Where does your love of cooking come from?

My family. My grandfather was a butcher, and I grew up in an Italian-American family with a garden. Food was the center of the universe in my family.

Which came first: farming or cooking?

Growing up, they came hand in hand. In my culinary life, cooking came first. When I opened Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, I was directly involved in the farming aspect. I don’t think I’ll ever do it differently. I feel like it’s  the pulse of what we do.

What’s your favorite breakfast?

If I am going to eat breakfast, it’s yogurt with goji berries, granola and honey. If I have a day off, I might have spinach and poached eggs and a piece of toast. The perfect poached egg is just [perfect] with a little crunchy salt.

What’s one ingredient you always have?

Olive oil, because I use it in so many different ways. In sauces, as dressing, to cook with. I joke, but I fix things with olive oil. It’s good for your skin too.

What’s one flavor you think is underappreciated?

I love bay leaves. I really love the aromatics, how perfumey they are. I always keep a tree in my greenhouse and we grow them here.

What is your single most favorite thing to cook?

I love making fresh pasta. It’s very therapeutic for me. It’s something I’ve done since I was five years old with my grandmother. Being in Maine for 22 years, I love cooking fish because I think it’s an art and I’m picky about it.

You wear a lot of professional hats: chef, farmer, educator, mentor. What’s your favorite?

I love cooking so much, but there’s nothing more rewarding than when someone comes back and says, “Thank you. I learned this,” or “I keep my kitchen organized this way because you showed me this way to do it.” The mentorship is really important to me, especially as I get older.

How has the kitchen changed for women over the course of your career?

I feel like it’s becoming an even playing field. When I started running my own kitchen, I put up with nothing. And I taught a lot of young professionals who came through my kitchen, male and female, what goes and what doesn’t go. But we’ve grown leaps and bounds recently. It’s so good to see.

What’s the most creative dish you’ve ever made?

I’m really the more cautious chef. Less is more for me. If we have perfect arugula, I want to put a little salt and olive oil on it, and maybe a tiny squeeze of lemon. I want to taste that arugula.

What’s your favorite drink?

I drink a lot of tea. I make my own kombucha and different herbals, tisanes. If someone has a sore throat in my kitchen, I’m grabbing ginger, cloves, oranges and honey and making them a remedy.

What’s your favorite restaurant right now?

Last year [pre-pandemic], I took two trips out to L.A. and visited a restaurant called Bavel with this big, open, wood-fired kitchen and Mediterranean influences, lots of vegetables, and I was mesmerized by their food. The way they were cooking food was just so primitive, the flavors were clean and the food was really fresh and great.

What’s your guilty food pleasure?

Normally on Sundays at Primo in Maine, I get crab rolls for the staff for lunch, and we get salt and vinegar potato chips. We put the chips on the rolls and eat them like that. It’s so good. It’s deadly. 

Any rules to live by in the kitchen?

Be organized and be clean. They have nothing to do with the cooking, and everything to do with the cooking. It’s something that I really drill into my cooks’ heads. When you take care of something, it lasts. And if you’re not organized, it’s a recipe for disaster.

The Tough Stuff

Chocolate or vanilla? Vanilla

Beer or wine? Wine

Pizza or pasta: Pizza

Gelato or sorbet? Gelato

Roasted or sous vide? Roasted

Street eats or sit down? Street eats

More money or more time? More time

Facebook or Instagram? IG

Current Binge? I really don’t watch TV

Categories: Culinary Spotlight, Dining