Online Extra: Talking Food with Chef Melissa Kelly
The Primo chef and co-owner explains why Maine is now a gourmet destination.
What does Melissa Kelly, chef at Rockland’s Primo restaurant and author of Mediterranean Women Stay Slim, Too have to say about eating in Maine? A lot. We spoke with her about her book, her restaurant, and what she loves about Maine food.
What was the inspration for your book?
Well you know there is of course French Women Don’t Get Fat, and I was just kind of thinking of a quick little book, not a full blown cookbook, that had a lot of stories and food memories because Italian cooking and the way I cook from the garden seems to be fairly healthy. I thought that it was a fun idea. I didn’t really want to do a cookbook, but there are one hundred recipes in there. But it’s more about the lifestyle and the stories.
What’s your favorite recipe in the book?
One recipe in the book I love and make all the time even at home (at home I don’t cook quite as much) is the bread and fish soup. Being in Maine it is very easy to get your hands on a whole haddock. I love the recipe. I filet the fish and use all the bones to make stock, then the fish goes back in at the end. It’s a soup that can be a meal. I like to make it at the end of the summer when all those ingredients are peaking.
What inspired you to become a chef?
I grew up on Long Island, and I’m half Irish, half Italian. My grandfather’s name was Primo, he was a butcher, and just had a real gusto for food and life and celebrating the meals together as a family. That was really important to me growing up and to our family. It still is. That kind of inspired me to think of cooking as a career. I was going to college and working in restaurants, and I heard about the culinary institute. I visited and that’s when I knew for sure — I was in awe.
Why did you choose to come to Maine to open Primo?
You know, Price and I both had family ties in Maine. It was important to us. We wanted to be on the coast, someplace on the East Coast. Maine had MOFGA, which was really appealing to me. It’s such a great organization. And there are a lot of farms in Maine. The land is rich, and what I love about Maine is that sometimes I feel like we’re living a little in the past. But it was in the past and yet today it feels like it’s what people are looking for in the future. The old style of living, people are trying to incorporate it back into their lifestyles now. I like being able to live that way.
What’s your cooking philosophy at Primo?
I really try and keep a very seasonal, to-the-moment approach with the food. We cook out of the garden, and we try to keep our dollars in the local economy. All of that is basically the way I grew up. What we don’t grow to try to buy from local farmers. And for me personally, eating quality food is really important: unrefined foods, pure foods, real foods. And moderation. But if you eat whole, unrefined, quality foods, moderation isn’t really a problem whereas if you eat a bag of chips, you’re still hungry.
What are your favorite Maine foods?
I love the oysters. I love Maine shrimp. The seafood is fabulous. And then I like a lot of the wild things: wild mushrooms like chanterelles and porcini, the little wild blackberries, and of course the Maine blueberries. I really like all those little wild things that truly come to season and you celebrate them.
What do you look for in a dining experience when you eat out in Maine?
If it’s the summertime, there’s nothing better than going down to Miller’s with a bottle of wine and getting some lobster and sitting on the dock. The people are nice, the scenery is in incredible, and they cook the lobster perfect. That’s my perfect Maine dining experience.