Melissa Kelly ’88, Executive Chef/Restaurateur
Melissa Kelly is the executive chef and proprietor of Primo located in Rockland, Maine. She is the 1999 James Beard Foundation Awards winner for Best Chef, Northeast. Chef Kelly grew up on Long Island. Her earliest cooking lessons took place in her Italian grandmother’s kitchen. In fact, she still favors Mediterranean accented foods. Melissa attended the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY and graduated first in her class. Her post-graduate education took place in some of the top restaurant kitchens in the country.
Melissa’s resume includes the posh Greenbrier Hotel, West Virginia where she was later selected to be the assistant to the Greenbrier Cooking School; Bluebeards Castle, St. Thomas USVI; and An American Place under the Godfather of American cuisine, Larry Forgione ’74 in New York. A protégé of Forgione’s, Melissa held the executive chef position at An American Place at the Beekman Arms Tavern in Rhinebeck, NY, and was later in charge of opening An American Place Waterside in Miami.
Continuing to broaden her culinary skills, Melissa moved west to work with Reed Heron of Restaurant Lulu and the legendary Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. “I didn’t have a style when I got there. By the time I left, I did: simplicity, seasonality, freshness,” she says. “I feel like I’m passing the torch from Chez Panisse.” Melissa has spent time in the southwest working with Melvin Masters in Denver, CO. Her travels have taken her to Barbados and the south of France to create culinary feasts for private families, as well as to Japan where she assisted in the opening of a satellite An American Place.
Chef Kelly was named one of the upcoming chefs of the 90’s by Food & Wine magazine. Nation’s Restaurant News, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Chocolatier, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Travel and Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Town & Country, and New York Magazine, among others, have all recognized her culinary talents. While executive chef at The Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Inn, the establishment was named one of “The Best New Restaurants” by Esquire magazine and both “Gourmet Retreat of the Year” and a “Grand Winner” by Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report.
In 2002, Melissa and her husband, pastry chef Price Kushner, completely refurbished an 1890 Victorian home. Named Primo after her Italian grandfather, Primo Magnani, Kelly’s ode to responsible growing introduced East Coast diners to the idea of farm-to-table with its use of local products and the restaurant’s own four acres of gardens, greenhouses, chicken coops, bees, and roaming pigs. At peak season about 80% of the ingredients used in Primo’s kitchen are sourced from the farm. “It’s a full circle kitchen,” she says. “The farm provides honey, fruits, veggies, eggs, edible flowers, micro-greens, fresh chicken, and house cured and smoked meats. Nothing is wasted; everything has its place. It is a continuous cycle that occurs throughout the restaurant with the kitchen, the animals, and the gardens.”
Primo’s kitchen has trained and launched a legion of young chefs including Julie Petrakis ’02 and Alexia Gawlak ’04. “I was very fortunate in hiring passionate people,” says Melissa. “They’re very culinary minded, not just in it for a job. Everyone who comes in the door works at every station in the kitchen and the gardens.”
In 2003, Melissa partnered with J.W. Marriott Hotels to open Primo at the Grande Lakes Resort in Orlando, FL and Primo at the Starr Pass Resort in Tucson, AZ. She is in touch with her satellite restaurants daily and spends time in Arizona and Florida during the winter months when the Maine location is closed. “The truth is we don’t make any money in Rockland because of the way we choose to operate,” she explains. “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.”
In her 2007 cookbook, Mediterranean Women Stay Slim, Too: Eating to Be Sexy, Fit, and Fabulous! co-authored by 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.”
In 2012, Primo received the Grand Award for Restaurant of the Year by Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report. The following year Bon Appetit magazine named Primo one of the top 20 most important restaurants in America. On May 6, 2013, Melissa was the first two-time recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef, Northeast.