Has any chef's career arc ever risen as smoothly as that of Melissa Kelly? The 1988 Culinary Institute of America grad (first in her class) rose from garde manger at Larry Forgione's An American Place in 1990 to James Beard Foundation Best Chef, Northeast winner in 1999. That honor recognized her work at the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in New York State; Kelly opened her own restaurant, Primo, in Rockland, ME, in 2000. That's home base now to a mini-empire that includes Primos at the JW Marriott Grandelakes Resort in Orlando and the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort in Tucson. RH's Bob Krummert spoke with her at her Rockland home.
Q: This is quite a setup. We see you've got your own Pilates Reformer. And your own studio.
A: Studio? It's just a small extra bedroom. And I bought the Reformer from my former instructor when she left town.
Q: Still, it looks like you're quite the workout warrior.
A: I do something every morning. That means Pilates class here in Rockland a couple times each week. And I'll do my own private thing three days a week. When I travel, I go to the early morning classes they have at the hotels, either yoga or Pilates.
Q: Sounds like you've got the stretch-and-strengthening thing covered. What do you do for cardio?
A: I don't. I hate cardio.
Q: Maybe that's because you burn plenty of calories operating three different versions of Primo located thousands of miles apart. How does that work?
A: I'm based in Rockland, and I have to visit the other two at least every six weeks. We close Primo here in Maine for the winter. I'm in Orlando or Tucson much more frequently then, and for longer periods of time. But yes, it's no secret that it's tough flying around the country to oversee three busy restaurants.
Q: Especially when it's your name on the restaurant and your cuisine on the plate. How do you staff those other two restaurants?
A: I hired the whole staff initially at both places. Then it's up to the chef and the GM after that, although we of course have manuals and procedures and all that. But the style of food and the way the restaurants are run are very similar. It's more of an issue of infusing your culture, just because it's different doing a Primo in a resort hotel than it is here in a small town in Maine.
Q: What's your work routine like when you're home in Rockland?
A: I speak to the chefs in Orlando and Tucson every day. And the general managers send me reports: what kind of numbers we did, problems and issues that have come up. Of course, we're always talking by phone about menus, products and events. The Primo chef in Tucson was with me here for five years, so he understands what we do, plus the Marriott side of it.
Q: And you're cooking here while all this back-and-forth is going on?
A: I'm in the kitchen every day. I usually come in at 9 a.m. and cook until 4 p.m. Then I do the expediting at night during service.
Q: We picture you with a cell phone glued to your ear while you're stirring pots on the stove.
A: You're not far off. It's a little distracting to run three restaurants on a day-to-day basis, when two of them are so far away. The upside is that it inspires me, a lot. I'm dealing with three sets of cooks, and the three locations have different seasons. For example, we had great asparagus in Tucson in February, in Florida in March and then later in the spring, here in Rockland.
Q: And you grew your own here in Rockland, right?
A: We did. Primo in Maine sits on four acres of land, two of which we farm. We also have two greenhouses so we can get things started earlier in the growing season and keep going much later. A lot of the food we serve at the restaurant is grown on site.
Q: Two acres is a lot to farm when you're doing it more or less by hand.
A: It is. We have a full-time gardener year-round and add a second one for the summer. It's worth it, because our supply of vegetables, herbs and fresh flowers is abundant and always fresh.
Q: You raise your own hogs here, too?
A: Yes, we get them when they're tiny in early June. They go to the slaughterhouse around Halloween. Then we process the meat here into pancetta, sausage and salumi here at the restaurant.
Q: You do the processing yourself?
A:Yes. My Italian grandfather taught me how.
Q: Finish this sentence. A day off for you is...
Q: Yet you found time to write a cookbook.
A: Yes, Mediterranean Women Stay Slim, Too. It's more of a lifestyle book than a professional cookbook.
Q: Think you could leverage all this into more Primos?
A: Baby steps are important to the way we do things at Primo. A new Primo is not easy to roll out, even with a great partner like Marriott. Let's just say that I don't want to still be cooking all day when I'm 65, and I'm not anxious to take any baby steps right now.