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.
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.
“I think they get a different perspective when they have to wash every green that comes muddy from the backyard versus having it come in a box,” Kelly said.
“Using every single piece of everything and making the most of it is important, right down to the composting. In the kitchen, we have colored buckets everywhere for chicken food, pig food, compost.”
Her next goal is to make the restaurant even more sustainable and efficient. Primo sits on a hill overlooking Penobscot Bay, and Kelly dreams of running the place with wind power someday.
Kelly has two other restaurants, in J.W. Marriott hotels, that also use the Primo name. One is in Orlando, Fla.; the other in Tucson, Ariz.
Both restaurants have their own gardens and follow Kelly’s philosophy as much as possible, and the staffs work with local farmers to get the fresh produce they need.
Kelly visits the other restaurants in the winter, when Primo in Rockland is closed for the season.
When Primo is open, she is there from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., six days a week, even though she owns a house just five miles down the road. “I like to say that I live there and I sleep someplace else,” she said.
The James Beard Award ceremony will be held the week before Primo opens for the season. So, as thrilled as Kelly is with her nomination, she’s not sure she’ll be able to make it to the Lincoln Center.
“It might be that, just as we get down there, I’ll be receiving a side of beef and a whole pig and a couple of lambs, and I’ll be busy up to my neck butchering,” she said.
“Usually, that week is making stocks and starting a kitchen from scratch after being closed for four months,” she said. “I’m going to try (to get to the ceremony), but I can’t say right now whether I will or not.”
Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: