Thursday, April 24, 2014
Melissa Kelly was in her car Monday, driving to New York through a snowstorm that was headed for Maine, when she heard in a phone call that the James Beard Foundation had named her a finalist for the prestigious Best Chef: Northeast award.
Melissa Kelly of Primo restaurant in Rockland, left, and Rebecca Charles of Pearl Oyster Bar in New York prepare a course at an event held at Arrows restaurant in Ogunquit in this 2005 photo.
Press Herald file photo
Kelly immediately asked who the other nominees are, and after hearing the names – most of them Boston chefs – said, "Wow, that's stiff competition."
Kelly has won the award before – in 1999, when she was working at Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. in New York. But the nomination means much more to her this time because it is for Primo, her restaurant in Rockland.
"I had been nominated three years in a row" at Old Chatham, she said. "The second year is when I won, and it was mind-blowing at the time. To get nominated here means so much more, because I've poured my heart and soul into this place. And I do pretty much every day, the way we do everything with the farm and the animals and growing all the vegetables. This is my dream, this restaurant."
Kelly is the only nominee from Maine this year. Krista Kern Desjaralis, chef/owner of Bresca in Portland, and Brian Hill, chef/owner of Francine Bistro in Camden, were semifinalists in the category but did not make the final cut.
The other finalists in the Best Chef: Northeast category are Jamie Bissonnette of Coppa in Boston; Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery + Cafe in Boston; Gerry Hayden of the North Fork Table & Inn in Southold, N.Y.; and Barry Maiden of Hungry Mother in Cambridge, Mass.
Winners will be announced on May 6 at the Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.
When Primo opens for the season on Mother's Day weekend, it will be in its 14th year. It started with 60 seats and has grown to 120, expanding twice. It has a peak-of-summer staff of 50.
What's its allure?
The restaurant has its own gardens and greenhouses on its 4-acre property, where it grows about 80 percent of its own produce during the summer. Primo raises its own pigs, gathers honey from its own beehives, and last year started raising its own meat birds – chickens, guinea hens and ducks – which also supply fresh eggs daily.
If that doesn't show Kelly's determination to make Primo a "full-circle kitchen," consider that the restaurant just got a license from the state so those meat birds can be slaughtered on site every Sunday.
Andrew Knowlton, a well-known columnist from Bon Appetit, recently named Primo one of the 20 most important restaurants in the United States, noting that its charcuterie program "rivals any in the U.S."
"What started as a humble country restaurant," Knowlton wrote, "has grown to be one of the country's most sincere and exciting expressions of farm to table."
"We're definitely one of a kind," Kelly said. "There's been a handful of restaurants in the United States that do what we do. We're very small. We're a mom-and-pop operation. There's no big company behind us or big backer or anything like that. This was from the ground up, starting with nothing."
Kelly was on her way to New York on Monday to interview students at the Culinary Institute of America for a few positions she has open at the restaurant this summer. Part of her dream is to teach young culinary students how to cook the way she does, and how to think the way she does about food.
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