This Chef Has One Foot in Three Corners of The Country

Not, you know, literally. Primo Chef Melissa Kelly has two feet, on very solid ground.

April 28, 2017 ● 3 min read

This is part two of our series dedicated to those who live or die by their sourcing convictions, inspired by our partners at Capatriti—whose tireless dedication as the first brand to earn the USDA Quality Monitoring Program seal on both Extra Virgin and 100% Pure olive oils reminds us of the best kinds of chefs cooking today. Chefs like Primo’s Melissa Kelly, who never stops seeking ways to serve better, more thoughtful creations in three separate and compelling climates.

Most chefs have one climate to work with: Melissa Kelly, the multiple James Beard award-winning chef and co-owner of Primo Restaurant, has three.  

At the original Primo, set in a restored Victorian in Rockland, Maine, the menu is only offered May through December — all the better to focus on the northern state’s extreme seasonality. About 80 percent of the menu’s ingredients are grown on the property’s four acres, and more is foraged from nearby fields and waters.

Primo’s sustainable ethos and meticulous ingredient sourcing, right down to the choice olive oil that fuels its kitchen, has made it a New England destination restaurant for its 17 years of business.  

Word spread fast about the little seasonal Victorian in Maine: In 2003, Kelly was approached by a hotelier looking to open satellite Primos in two locations that couldn’t be more different than the state she called home: Orlando, Florida, and Tuscon, Arizona. Before she said yes, Kelly asked to carry her farm-to-table philosophy to the new restaurants, operating an on-site organic garden and sourcing from local farmers —ahead of the curve for both locales. She got a yes.  

The gardens at Primo’s two southern locations offer vastly different ingredients from their northern progenitor. In Florida, Kelly and her chefs revel in the fresh citrus and tropical fruits like loquats to fuel its pizzas, pasta and Italian entrees. In Arizona, the long growing season allows for produce like pomegranates, artichokes, and figs to grow alongside the Tuscan-inspired patio that doubles as a dining room in the cooler months.  

“We have three different climates and local farmers all over the country that we can work with,” she says. “I love that I keep getting to learn new things.”  

Kelly didn’t grow up wanting to be a chef — she wanted to be a veterinarian, a choice her mother now finds comical since her job involves animal butchery—but food was always part of her early life in an Italian-American family in Long Island. Her parents made pasta and bread from scratch, went fishing for that night’s dinner, and cooked with ingredients grown in their garden. “All of those things were ingrained in me as a child,” she says.  

She started working in restaurants in college and became fascinated with them. After graduating first in her class at the Culinary Institute of America, her career led her from legendary New York kitchens like Larry Forgione’s An American Place to Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley.  

At Chez Panisse, Kelly relearned the seasonal ethos she’d developed early on. That rediscovered sensibility led her back in New York, running the kitchen at Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in the Hudson Valley when she won her first James Beard Award for “Best Chef: Northeast” in 1999.  

Old Chatham was the first time she’d worked at a place that was both farm and restaurant, and she learned the challenges and rhythms of operating both businesses simultaneously. “It was kind of the catapult to what I’m doing now,” Kelly says. After five-and-a-half years in the Hudson Valley, Kelly and her husband, partner and pastry chef, Price Kushner, decided it was time to apply the lessons they’d learned at Old Chatham to open their own place.  

Maine appealed from the outset. It had a robust farm and garden association and access to all sorts of wild foods, from greens to mushrooms. Kelly had some family there. Most of all, Maine offered a coastal locale at a price they could afford.  

Primo started with the same four acres it has today, but with much less on them. In the beginning, they had three pigs and no chickens; now it has 15 pigs and 225 chickens, plus a producers’ license, which means they can butcher animals on-site instead of taking them to a facility. There are two greenhouses, where they start vegetables before the season opens, and acres of organic garden beds, in which they grow everything from cooking grains and edible flowers to seasonal produce like berries, apples, pears, and quince. Seafood comes from local fisherman; they forage for mushrooms, greens, and fiddlehead ferns.  

Even after nearly two decades of practice, operating a restaurant in Maine isn’t without its struggle. They have to practice food preservation techniques like fermentation, pickling, and dehydration to extend the season of many of their ingredients, and though the restaurant is closed for the winter, the farm still needs to be kept up (they sell eggs from their chickens in the off-season).   Luckily for the guests who come back year after year to Primo, those are exactly the kinds of challenges Melissa Kelly enjoys.  

“The food is always changing. We really have to keep an eye on the weather,” she says. “In my career, I keep going north — I like the seasonality of it.”  

Especially when you can whisk yourself away to say, sunny Orlando or Tuscon whenever you need a little dose of sunshine and loquats. 

Anna Roth | Photograph via Greta Rybus