Long Distance Locavore

Sylvie Bigar - November 2008

Can a Northern New England chef launch satellite operations in sunbelt hotels and keep her arcadian philosophy uncompromised?

It's not summer yet but it's just a matter of days. Melissa Kelly, 43, clad in signature black overalls and long sleeved T-shirt, is giving me a tour of her four acre organic garden behind Primo, her Victorian home base restaurant in Rockland, Maine. It's not just that she's proud of it. The garden, with its esoteric herbs, Mediterranean produce, and crowded pigpen, is an extension of her persona. Her own garden to pick from, symbiotic relationships with farmers and purveyors, and a quasi-arcadian way of life are the foundations on which Kelly and Price Kushner, her life and business partner, have built not just one wholesome restaurant in coastal Maine, but two outposts, Primo Orlando and Primo Tucson, both housed in upscale JW Marriott hotels. And this is why, on this early June morning while the purple asparagus start peeking out, Kelly, with her black clogs set firmly in the rich New England soil, is already leaning into her crucial cell phone.

Along with Kushner as both business manager and pastry chef, she now successfully juggles all three restaurants, perhaps to emulate the paradise they first created as chef-idealists 13 years ago at The Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Inn in Old Chatham, New York. There, Kelly and the owners of the 600 acre farm developed a luxurious inn anchored by a top-level restaurant. Kelley made it the model of what would become her trademark at Primo: a garden setting with a smokehouse and a pastry lab where Kushner could craft his breads, pastries, and desserts.

More than once Kelly has enjoyed a lifestyle about as close to idyllic as any chef could hope to achieve. And each time, fate and a rising reputation have intervened. The first upheaval resulted from Kelly's 1999 James Beard award as best chef in the Northeast, an accolade that would help her realize her own dream. The following year, Kelly headed out with Kushner and several members of the Chatham team to launch Primo.

"Primo is a lifestyle, not a concept," she likes to say. Primo Magnani was her grandfather. Born in Bologna, Italy, he set sail for America and became a butcher. Kelly recalls that as a child on Long Island, living across the street from her grandparents, she learned the communal Italian way: "We went fishing and crabbing. We made our own wine. We picked dandelions from the neighbor's yard. We always ate together. Primo's family life and work revolved around food."

Today, what defines Kelly's style very much takes its root from what and how she ate as a child. Her defining moment came during a stint at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. "I really found my style there. I was fussing with a plate, trying to achieve some kind of esthetic mirage, and the chef barked, ‘Just put it out!' I realized what mattered. And what mattered was taste. For the first time in a restaurant, the food that was served was like home cooking. There was a reason to the way everything was done."

In her 2007 cookbook, Mediterranean Women Stay Slim Too: Eating to be Sexy, Fit, and Fabulous! coauthored with Eve Adamson, Kelly explains, "The escarole and bean soup loaded with garlic I brought to school while my buddies nibbled on sandwiches and Twinkies didn't make me the most popular kid, but now I realize I was the lucky one."

The dishes she prepares at Primo in Rockland speak of simplicity, fresh ingredients, and seasons. "Try the cavatelli with homemade sheep's milk ricotta, chicken braised with peppers and tomatoes, roasted chicken stock and broccoli raab. That's me. Rustic, fresh, and handmade." She offers about 10 specials daily, depending on what her bountiful garden renders, the catch she receives from fisherman, the cheese farmers bring to the kitchen, or what her imagination conjures up. I savored the freshness in a perfectly crisp wood-roasted whole branzino stuffed with delicious orange and lovage, grilled summer squash, and pesto pantesca (Sicilian pesto made with almonds rather than pine nuts). The only constant on the menu is her late grandfather's favorite dish, a comforting pork saltimbocca served over garlic mashed potato layered with spinach, topped with prosciutto and moistened with a sage/mushroom/Madeira jus.

Just as Kelly and Kushner managed to wrestle their way to a new plateau of success with Primo and regained their balance, their skills and the spreading awareness of the pastoral spirit with which they live and cook brought a second upheaval—one that has expanded Kelley's professional life as far as she is prepared to let it go.

It was chance and a chef's taste buds that began the relationship with Marriott, when in 2002 a visitor who had come to Rockland to see the Owls Head Transportation Museum ap­peared in the Primo kitchen. A Marriott chef, he'd eaten dinner at Primo. Now he wanted to know if Kelly would be interested in a new JW Marriott venture in Orlando. Her first reaction? "Absolutely not." But when the call came a few months later to fly to Orlando and cook for the decision making team, she decided to try her luck. "They were talking to Wolfgang Puck and Todd English; I didn't know if they would work with someone who wasn't a star." She brought her own ingredients and prepared 12 dishes. After just a few bites, the tasters were charmed. But Kelly still wasn't sold. She agonized for two months and drew up a long laundry list of items for the contract. "I thought they'd never agree." But they did, meaning that she and Kushner could source their own ingredients, hire and train the staff (most of whom have spent time in Rockland), build a garden, and, most importantly, not compromise her philosophy. "We created a licensing agreement with a sizable fee upfront and a percentage on the sales. We saw the potential. The truth is we don't make any money in Rockland because of the way we choose to operate. We reinvest everything into the restaurant, for the garden, for a renovation, for a more sustainable kitchen. The Marriott properties support us and allow us to grow."

Both hotel restaurants have a grander feel to match their corporate surroundings, but the homegrown point is made in each by an open kitchen, a large communal table, and a farm table in the middle of the dining room covered with baked goods, cheeses, and olive oils, which as a bread station showcases Kushner's artistry.

Many question how the couple managed to honor their locavore values and establish essential relationships with local suppliers in far-flung states. Kathleen Blake, a board member of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs who met Kelly at a WCR event in Washington, D.C., was, until July, executive chef at Primo Orlando. She explains, "We joined the Florida Organic Growers Asso­ciation, Local Harvest, went to the farmers' market, and made more than 100 calls, asking growers to send us samples. I remember Charley Andrews, from Hammock Hollow Farm, sent baby eggplants and Charentais melons. We were setting up in this huge corporate ballroom covered in produce, and the sweet aroma of the melons filled the space." Kelly personally sought out local pig farmers and artisanal growers. As for satellite staff training, Kushner's sunny disposition as supervisor sets the tone for warm and professional service in all three locations. Adds Blake, "For Kelly, family and a sense of community is everything, and we treat our guests like family. We want to be a part of their memories."

Many experienced chefs might compare Kelly's attempt to apply her signature idealism to three far-flung restaurants to trying to cook by throwing water simultaneously into three sauté pans full of oil. According to author Michael Ruhlman, who wrote about Kelly in The Reach of a Chef, "She probably gets an offer per week. I know that Melissa weighed the negatives very carefully, but she realized she could expand and stay true to herself. Chefs are becoming real CEOs, and she's proven that she's not only a great chef but a great manager and leader."

Kelly smiles her elfin smile and responds, "I am not a planner. This situation evolved naturally, and I am now working with three seasons and three kitchens. I need to keep my finger on the pulse. I worry constantly, but it's working. I can't imagine doing more, though." "Melissa is completely hands-on," Blake adds. "She has the strongest work ethic I've encountered. She's completely in control and constantly reachable."

Travel remains a constant. As either Kelly or Kushner goes to Orlando once a month and to Tucson every six weeks, the couple continues to crowd their already full plate with added stress and worry.

This year, together with Alfred Portale, Kelly won The Culinary Institute of America's Alumnus of the Year Award. She's grateful, but accolades are seemingly not what she strives for. She still lives her credo, makes her own vinegar, keeps bees for honey, butchers the pigs for the salumi and pancetta that hang in her meat room, cultivates esoteric herbs, heats her greenhouse by biodiesel, and uses oyster shells in her compost.

Regardless of their critical and popular success in all three Primo locations, one occasionally glimpses a downside. Says Kushner, amiably shaking his curls, "It's too much. Our dream is coming close to becoming a nightmare. We work all the time, constantly reinvesting what we make into the property."

Offers to open more Primos have been made, but Kelly has declined—at least for now.