Salad Days

When Melissa Kelly opened Primo in Orlando a decade ago, she attracted a group of culinary artists who have gone on to instill her farm-to-table philosophy in their own ventures.

A decade ago, words like “sustainable’’ and “organic’’ were not part of our daily dining-out vocabulary, and the term “locally sourced’’ hadn’t yet appeared on Orlando menus. Then an award-winning chef brought her restaurant concept to a new hotel resort—and planted the seeds of a remarkable culinary family tree that continues to transform the area’s dining scene.

Melissa Kelly—James Beard Award winner, veteran of fresh food doyen Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, Culinary Institute of America graduate—had opened Primo in Rockland, Maine, in 2000. Named after her grandfather, Primo Mangani, Kelly’s ode to responsible growing introduced East Coast diners to the idea of farm-to-table with its use of local products and the restaurant’s own four acres of gardens, greenhouses, pigs, chickens and bees. When Kelly added a location of Primo at the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes in 2003, she helped give new credence to local restaurants like K Wine Bar and Seasons 52 that were experimenting with those same ideas.

“I feel like I’m passing the torch from Chez Panisse,” she says, referring to the legendary Berkeley, Calif., restaurant. Although her primary base is in Maine, Kelly keeps in daily contact with Orlando and her third restaurant in Tucson, as is usual when a chef runs multiple restaurants. “I try and inspire my cooks every day. Working in a kitchen is lots of work, very long hours. You have to have a love for it,’’ she laughs, “or otherwise it’s miserable.”

Alexia Gawlak

Julie Petrakis

Eddie Nickell

Kathleen Blake

Judging by Primo alumni who have opened local restaurants, her inspiration has been effective. Kathleen Blake (Pine Twenty2, The Rusty Spoon, Urban Flats), Julie Petrakis (The Ravenous Pig, Cask & Larder), Eddie Nickell (Funky Monkey, Bananas Diner, Nick’s Italian Kitchen, Prickly Pear) and Alexia Gawlak (Cuts & Craft Artisan Meats) are just the most visible names.

“I was very fortunate in hiring passionate people,” Kelly says. “They’re very culinary minded, not just in it for a job.” Kathleen Blake was chef de cuisine at Primo from 2003 to 2008, running the kitchen and developing new dishes. “Melissa and I had similar ideas in the way we cooked,” she says. Blake was at Restaurant Nora in Washington D.C., the country’s first certified organic restaurant, after years in California. “I’m from Iowa; that’s how my family cooked,” she says. “Before you start messing around with molecular gastronomy, you have to know how to make soup from scratch.”

Others weren’t as familiar with that way of cooking. “For some people it was the first time they’d every handled a whole pig or fish,” she says. “It’s the same way I run Rusty Spoon. If you get meat on a foam tray wrapped in plastic, if you don’t get a whole animal, you can’t really understand what any of it means.”

Alexia Gawlak, who came to Primo in 2005 after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, says Blake’s fresh beet salad “turned me around.’’

“Even though I am from Orlando, it didn’t occur to me that there was a local food scene,” Gawlak says. “Kathleen taught me so much; Julie Petrakis was the sous chef. Primo shaped my idea about local food. It was all about truly fresh food, treated simply, to make it excellent.” Gawlak went on to become sous chef at The Ravenous Pig; her husband Rhys ran the charcuterie program. They are opening Cuts & Craft at the new East End Market in Winter Park come April.

Primo even changed how the hotel handled restaurants. Eddie Nickell was working for Marriott before the Grande Lakes resort opened.

“Marriott had never really ventured into a celebrity-style restaurant before,” he says, “and Melissa Kelly is a big name, with her own ideas. Marriott had never seen anything like it; we were culinary rebels … delivering an entire pig at the loading dock. They didn’t know what to do with us.” Nickell and his partner, Nick Olivieri, now own the five various Funky Monkey restaurants, along with a catering service and wine store.

Gawlak says, “I’m sure it must have been hard for Marriott to embrace the idea of an independent restaurant inside the hotel. We’d bring in whole animals and we had a kitchen garden.”

Blake remembers tending the 1 1/2 acres of beds and fields in Orlando as part of her job. “Melissa runs a tight ship,” she says. “Everyone who comes in the door works at every station in the kitchen and in the garden.”

Now, the Primo garden is a highlight of the Grande Lakes experience, along with a 7,000-square-foot fruit and vegetable garden called Whisper Creek Farm, and an onsite apiary. Chris Brown, executive chef at the

JW Marriott, says the fruits of the farm are used in all the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton restaurants at the resort, and the honey is used at the Ritz-Carlton Spa. “We have over 100 cooks in the JW Marriott alone,” Brown says, “and the best of the best are in Primo. This is where they get the experience of how a restaurant should be run.”

The Ravenous Pig is pointed to most when discussing the burgeoning foodie scene, the place where many diners taste Niman Ranch lamb or bone marrow for the first time. Julie Petrakis was sous chef at Primo before opening “The Pig” with husband James, who was sous chef at Luma (another link in the local chain; Julie was pastry chef at Luma; Gawlak has also been sous chef there).

“Primo is a great environment to learn about utilizing local, organic and seasonal ingredients,” Petrakis says. “It was a great place to gain knowledge about supporting local farms, and then branch out on your own.” Before Ravenous Pig opened, she developed the recipes and menu for the Greens & Grille mini-chain, now run by brother-in-law Brian Petrakis, which uses organic ingredients and hormone-free meats and makes soups and side dishes from scratch.

“James and Julie are amazing,” Kelly recalls fondly. “Kathleen is just plain brilliant. Eddie was always so fun.”

Nickell was general manager in the dining room. “It was an exciting time. When Melissa walked in the room we were in awe,” he says of Kelly. “She’s such a great chef. I didn’t know about this stuff, I‘d never heard of things like squid ink pasta.”

Nickell says, “We were the cool kids. We took Primo as our own. It was a group of hip, young, passionate kids with pierced ears and miniskirts… I was in my 30s and felt old.”

He has used well the lessons learned at Primo. “We learned it’s pretty cool to have a love for food,” he says. “To be out of the ordinary. I still feel that way, all of my restaurants are out of the box. Kathleen, Julie—all of us, we’re still kind of crazy.”

Today, Primo remains a high point in an expanding and adventurous local dining landscape, serving hand-crafted organic and local dishes under the watch of chef de cuisine Gilberto Ramirez. Kelly spends time at Grande Lakes in the winter when her Maine restaurant is weatherbound and shuttered, and visits her kind of crazy culinary children with pride. As she should. 

Categories: Dining