Returning to the iconic Maine restaurant after 20 years ...
In 2004, I spent a week in Rockland, ME, hanging out in the kitchen of Melissa Kelly’s restaurant, Primo. I was exploring the changing role of chefs in popular culture as they moved out of the kitchen, into the limelight, and grew their businesses, for a book called The Reach of a Chef. Primo was the antithesis of this celebrity-chef movement. To me, it was the romantic ideal of a restaurant: a husband and wife team who had bought a house and opened a restaurant in it, serving food that was not fabulous because it was trend-setting and original, but rather because the quality of ingredients was pristine and the execution of the cooking was so solid.
Last month, Ann, Annabelle, and I had a free night in the area and I reached out to Melissa to see if she had room for us the night we’d be there. Happily, she did. What would it be like going back nearly 20 years later, I wondered? I knew that she and her partner Price had split up. I knew the restaurant remained crazily popular. But was it a hackneyed version of its original self? Had its success, kitchen renovations, and overall growth diminished the deep homefulness of the place?
Of all the kitchens I’ve ever worked in or written about, the Primo kitchen was my favorite. Primo’s kitchen felt like home. And Melissa herself was a pleasure to be around—smart and demanding, but low-key and easy. Deserving of her James Beard awards. Also, she worked harder than anyone there.
Back then she had a good-sized garden that produced 60 percent of the produce on the menu. She was proud of the couple of pigs they were raising (though she confessed to having some difficulties curing salami). She taught me how to butcher skate wings and how to make sheep’s-milk ricotta.
Nineteen years later, I couldn’t have been more excited to return.
Herewith are pics of the new gardens, livestock, the new kitchen, some of the dishes we had on our July visit, a brief video, and the ultimate surprise of Chef Melissa.
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