May 7, 2013

Chef Melissa Kelly: 'It just all felt very surreal'

A day after accepting her second James Beard Foundation Award, the 'Best Chef, Northeast' is back in her kitchen at Rockland's Primo.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

In less than 24 hours, Melissa Kelly went from wearing a little black dress and rubbing elbows with celebrity chef Mario Batali in New York City to her signature overalls in her Maine kitchen, processing wild boar she butchered herself.

click image to enlarge

Melissa Kelly, chef/owner at Primo in Rockland, was named Best Chef: Northeast at the James Beard Foundation awards in New York Monday night.

Kent Miller photo

"It's like Cinderella," said the chef/owner of Primo in Rockland, chuckling at the conflicting images. "The slipper fell off."

Kelly won the prestigious James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef in the Northeast on Monday night at New York's Lincoln Center. By Tuesday morning, she was back in her restaurant's kitchen.

She is the first chef to win a regional best chef award twice, according to the foundation. She won the award in 1999, when she worked at Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. in New York.

The Beard awards are often referred to as the Oscars of the food world.

Kelly wasn't sure if she would attend this year's awards ceremony because her restaurant will open for the season Friday. She wasn't expecting to win, since she'd won a Best Chef award already.

She changed her mind and ended up flying to New York on Sunday afternoon.

On awards day, Kelly said, she awoke at 5 a.m. and walked all over the city. It was a low-key day in which she visited a farmers market, "had a nice kale juice," and met her family for lunch.

"Then I got dressed, and 10 minutes later we were there, and it just all felt very surreal," Kelly said. "I love Mario Batali, and he gave me the award. It was a big surprise, but I feel very proud of my staff and what we've done here. (When I won) before, it was someone else's restaurant."

After the ceremony, Kelly attended a party at Batali's restaurant, Del Posto.

Kelly said her staff is excited about the win and her phone has been "on fire" with text messages and middle-of-the-night phone calls congratulating her.

Now, it's back to business.

"We worked late on Saturday night and butchered three wild boar and a side of beef and a pig before I left" for New York City, Kelly said. "I had to get it done before I left. So today, we're cooking off pate and making sauces and kind of processing all that meat."

When Primo opens for the season, it will begin its 14th year of operation. The restaurant has its own gardens and greenhouses, grows about 80 percent of its produce and raises pigs. Last year, it started raising meat birds, including chickens, guinea hens and ducks.

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