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Meet Chef Melissa Kelly, an award-winning chef and a conscientious farmer who has created a culinary community in the forest of Rockland, Maine. At PRIMO, Melissa embodies the philosophy that shapes how she cooks, and how she lives.

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Transcript

- Both Price and I have a dream that we're trying to attain on making a very special place. In the beginning, we started out very small. In the kitchen it was myself and two cooks. We've grown the restaurant, we've grown the garden. It takes a lot to grow this much food on a consistent basis. We feel like we're stewards to this land. We have to cover crop, we have to move our animals, we have to give back so we can continue to thrive and grow. - There's quite a few people that advertise themselves as farm to table. This is a farm, that has a restaurant at the edge of it. - This is a very special place that she and Price have created. There is no other place but Primo, there is no one who works harder than her, there's no one who cares more than she does. You wanna know how to cook and how to do things right, you come to Primo. - I get very excited when I see something that's just dug out of the ground, the smell of the earth still on it. When you pick it that day and you see how screamingly beautiful it is, it's hard to screw that up. We rotate everything in these gardens just to keep the soil healthy. It's critical here in Maine. We have very drastic seasons. One of our primary goals is to give back as much as we take. You don't know do those things, then I feel like you get less nutritious food and it doesn't taste as good. I wanna taste that, I want my guests to taste that. I want them to understand the difference also. This is all still growing, this is calendula. And comfrey. And this is nice because it's regrowth, so it's very tender and young. So we do a lot of trial and error, what works here, what doesn't work here. We've tried to grow things that might grow in a different climate, like artichokes, which we've not done very well with but we tried. Like right in this little corner we transplanted wild ginger, which, this is a black walnut tree, and a lot of things won't grow under a black walnut tree because the walnuts are actually, have a toxin in them. But wild ginger does really well. These are the black walnuts. My grandmother had one of these trees so it reminds me of her, but it's toxic to a lot of plants. So not much will grow underneath this tree, but I love this tree, so we're never gonna take it down. So we have to plant what the tree likes. - I would get here early and she was already here. You'd think that she's sleeping upstairs like, next to the bar, cuz the amount of hours that she put in with this place was just unbelievable, and it was, for me, as a young cook, it actually instilled a serious work ethic. You're only gonna be able to make people work for you when you're working. You know, you have to lead by example, and Melissa does that. - [Melissa] This is not a concept, this is a lifestyle. Every day we live it, we feel it, we breathe it. Otherwise it does not work. I feel very fortunate to have the people that I have working here every day. And these are like my children. - I call Primo "warm hug food." I mean it's delicious, it's beautiful, it's conceptual, but at the end of the day, you feel like you've been given like, the best warm hug because it's just love, and you can taste it. - So this is a noodle, it's called malfatti, cuz that means "poorly made" which is kinda crazy, but it's a great noodle because it really stays nice and al dente and it also has all these little ridges to catch the sauce. Pasta's one of my favorite things to make, to make the hand made noodles, because it's very relaxing and it's very rewarding. You can make a million different shapes. As you build it, you're creating the flavor, the texture. Cook it with care, cook with a purpose. I always say that about my cooks. I can see someone who's just going through the motions or somebody who's actually cooking with a purpose. This is home made from the pasta, from scratch, a dish that we created here. We raised those pigs right here. They grew up on Primo food. Now they're going back into Primo food. It's a cycle, a circle. The decision to have a farm at the restaurant, for me, was kind of a life long collaboration of everything. How I grew up, with a garden, and I worked on a farm for a little while before we opened here. And it just felt like home, and it felt like where I should be and what I should be doing. So, after doing that, there was like, no turning back. I couldn't think to cook without walking outside and seeing something grow, and the natural cycle of growing and what growing means for food and cooking and to put something on the table that you grew, I don't think I can do it any other way now. When you can capture something when it's at its peak, you have to honor it. Whether it's the vegetables or an animal or an egg that's warm that you took out of the coop, there's a totally different respect for food. And bringing it from the earth, from the animal to the table to the plate, you have to do it with care. You have to do it with a purpose. I feel responsible when someone walks into the restaurant that they're gonna have a good, healthy meal. Might have a little extra butter or olive oil or fat on it, but I know where it was grown, I know who grew it, who picked it, what hands were on it, and as minimal as possible is what my goal is. I grew up in an Italian-American family and food was very important. This is a dish that's always on the menu at Primo. The reason why it never comes off is because I used to make this dish for my grandfather. He was a butcher, he used to bring home all kinds of cuts of meat. He liked this dish with veal, but here, because we're a very pork centric restaurant, so we do it with pork. So the dish is a classic Roman dish, and this is actually my version of it, so it's a little bit different. And it does have a story. This is the connection, I mean, this is, for me, this is my family connection. It just means every time I do it, I wanna do it a little bit better. Like guests, some nights we'll have a table of eight and they'll have six of them. To me, that says a lot about a dish, because they don't wanna share it. My most favorite compliment I've ever gotten is, "You made me remember something my grandmother used to make. "I haven't had this since I was a little kid." I think it's the passion and the love that they taste. I really do. I think that they can taste when someone puts that energy into the food. - If we're gonna have animals, they're gonna be happy, healthy animals. And they're not gonna stay in one place. We move the coop every two, three weeks. Just to move them into the old garden areas and to new rye grass areas that we planted, just to give them fresh beautiful ground. Keep them happy and keep the eggs tasty. We constantly move them, we constantly till and replant, and it's just extra expense, but we don't really care. You know, happy animals are tasty animals. It's been a long journey of 16 years, of growing a little here, a little there, taking on a little more. Cuz we only have four acres to raise 15 pigs, 200 laying hens, 900 meat birds, and produce three acres of vegetables, it takes a lot of planning. But it's worth it every day when you get back here. Morning, girls! It's the morning march. It's like a mass exodus from a fire alarm. Oh yeah, when we move 'em like this, they are ecstatic. Those are all lettuces there, there's radishes, all the dandelion and bianca greens. This is what we harvested, yeah, three days ago for dinner. The last harvest. After we harvest, once they get a little overgrown, then they come in and just devour. Some are foragers and don't wanna stay in the fence and go in the woods, some just want the feeders. That's it, some sleep in and don't come out. They can fly over, and they also sneak out when they want. But they always come back, and they're fine. As long as the fox doesn't come before dark. He's come before, often. But this whole area, 75 layers, will last three days. Between this and the certified organic grain, you get the most beautiful eggs, and the most beautiful bright bright yellow orange yolks, and the tastiest eggs. Look at 'em. It's like, it's a playground for a few days. It's amazing to see. You know, it's almost an egg a day per bird. They have much less cholesterol and more much nutrients than conventional eggs, where chickens don't see daylight and don't play in the earth. It makes the absolutely best eggs possible. But this, to me, is what it's about. Seeing them out here like this, I don't, you know, I let them do the harvesting of the birds. I just keep 'em happy from day one until the last day, whenever that might be. So they have one bad moment. - I think it's important for me, as a chef, to do things the right way. I mean, this is how people did it for thousands of years, you know. This is a spicy prosciutto. This is bresaola, it's a beef shoulder tenderloin. Those two are spicy pancettas on top. So we need this humidity so they don't dry too fast on the outside. You really have to monitor it and check it every day. If they dry too fast on the outside, they'll never dry in the middle. Still, like, it's such an organic process that you have to kind of baby it all the way. For me, when you raise the animal, and you're so close to them, I get so affected by that, that I have the fear of God in me if I screw it up. Because I loved them, and just the day that we send them off is very difficult and we wanna honor them with every scrap of their being. We don't waste a piece of them. First of all, we get our pigs from a farmer who is the best, and she raises her pigs with so much love and care. And then, you know, everyone here loves 'em and we feed them a couple times a day, and then on Sunday sometimes we give 'em a bath, and they have personalities and they are a big integral part of Primo. To waste it would be a crime, but I try and install that in my cooks who are young culinarians but also to our guests who come in and talk about it a little bit on our pigs, how much, you know, that they were cared for the seven months that they were here. It's a difficult thing. Even the chickens, when we slaughter a chicken it's the same thing. Every time I kill a chicken personally I say, "Thank you" in my head. You know, we raise them for food, and that's a reality, and I love animals very much. It's part of our life here. This fat is so creamy and beautiful, and when we brine it, and then it has so much flavor. This is because they ate so well here at Primo, these pigs. They have all that extra love on them. That's what food should be. You put it in your body, it should be something good and raised with care, whether it's a vegetable or a chicken or an egg or a pig. I hope people can make the connection. We try and instill it in our staff so they can explain it to the guests and say, "This was harvested today." For me, I could never do it any other way. Like I couldn't just be a chef in a restaurant that ordered food. I think you just have to be happy with what you're doing and feel good about it. I'm here. This is it. This is it. My brain doesn't work where I can sit at home and write a whole menu and then find the products and make the food. My soul would not be happy. - They're sortin' through 'em. - So you're measuring them? - Measuring out the small ones - Yep - [Micah] ... from the legal size ones. - This one's pretty big. - Oh yeah, that's nice. Nice female, it's got a v-notch in it. - So yeah, throw that back. - So you get, I mean, see that, in that particular flipper it's got a little nick in the tail. At one time it had eggs on it, and someone put a -- - So even if it doesn't have eggs on it right now, you still have to throw it back? - Yep. It'll take a couple years for that to grow in. - This is a producer. - So. - Yeah. - She's no good. At the end of the day, we're picking out our lobsters, we're gonna, these guys know the routine. We'll pick up the best lobsters for Primo, send the best ones up there to Melissa for sure. Cuz Melissa's got the best place in town. She deserves the best lobsters. I think it's pretty cool to be able to take some of our lobsters and see 'em go to a local restaurant right in town. They'll be served the best lobsters you can possibly get, you know? - I think there's an appreciation, too. For me, for what Micah goes through to get the lobsters, and then he comes and has dinner with us sometimes and appreciates our hard work. - Yep. - So it's a mutual respect. - Yep. - And then we even, once we cook 'em and we make soup with 'em, then we take that scrap and feed it to the pigs. - Yep. - Even the pigs eat lobster in Maine. - Well fed pigs at Primo. - They're so sweet and delicious and fresh. - Coast of Maine's just known for its good lobsters. Cold water, deep water. - [Melissa] Right here in Owl's Head is the deepest. - Yeah, Owl's Head's some of the deepest water in Maine. In this particular town, in this bay. - [Melissa] And how deep are those traps? - [Micah] I think these ones are in like, 250 feet of water. - Well we're lucky enough to live on the coast where the water is pristine and clean and cold and crispy and these creatures that come out of it get to eat all the other good shellfish that's in there. - That's right. - And we're lucky enough to put it on a plate. You can see how plump it is, and how fresh it is. - Maine lobster is known all over the world. So I'd say it's the best lobster in the world. People love it, you know. You tell people you're from Maine and they always ask about Maine lobster. - When I was in Italy they, when I said I was from Maine, they were like, "Lobster." That's the first thing they'd say. This is hard work. You guys gotta deal with the weather and the wind and the fog and you go out in the winter, it's brutal. - It's a good place to be, out here on a summer morning with the sun coming up. Then we got other days when we're thinking, "What the heck are we doing out here? This is crazy." - Well I'm so grateful for it. I understand what goes into doing this. All the hard work and the effort and the risk that you take coming out here. So, we wanna make sure we cook 'em perfect, make someone happy. It's amazing, the color of it, this fresh, this clean. The water's so cold and gorgeous and it's gonna be delicious. I need to walk through the garden and look at things and smell things and feel them and touch them. What do I wanna taste with that? What flavors work with that? I think about the weather, so it's really in the moment. This is, the octopus has been braised, and now we're gonna give it a sear on this plancha. It could be on the menu for several weeks or it could be just for one night. We do have the hen of the woods tonight, as well as we have a pig head. It's a very special treat. Everything on here is from here. This is terroir at its finest. As a chef, I'm somewhat insatiable, like I'm never totally satisfied and I think that's part of my motivation for what I do and to keep pushing forward. I wanna make sure it's perfect and it's right. I think it shows through the food. Everyone wants to come to a pig day. All the local people are asking to come, all the cooks wanna bring their families and their spouses. Because it is a really special day. It's a celebration of the total picture of what Primo's about. You ready for this? You're gonna have like, five recipes on each team. Now we're making three different kinds of culpa, you're gonna do a pig ear terrine, which is intense. You're making pate, and you're making sbrisiolona. Uh, we also have a cider press, so we're gonna press some cider. And we're using a lot of cider right now in our brines, in our recipes. These pigs lived in a pen, ate those apples, they're getting marinated in those apples, and they're gonna be glazed with those apples. So we need cider. And we're gonna press every apple we can find. We're very happy to share this day with you. And it's very special to us. - It's pretty special to see a chef gather this many people to do something that's very personally emotional. - Here at Primo, it's a full circle kitchen. We waste nothing. The balance of all this, is so important here. But when you do it for food, you have to have a reverence. And we have that here, and that's why you're all here. And I thank you for that. When you take a life, I feel the disruption in the universe. It's a very hard day for me. Because I love the pigs so much. These pigs get belly rubs, they get donuts at 1:30 in the morning, they're lucky pigs, they're happy pigs. And you'll see that when you touch that meat. You'll feel it. So, to the pigs. Cheers. I, you know, you get a little bit attached to your animals. You raise them from when they're little, eight weeks old. So when you're gonna slaughter an animal for the table, for food, it's a poignant moment, for me at least. But it's joyous at the same time, cuz we know what's coming back. That we will take every ounce and use it and respect it and honor it. It's a true celebration of how are we gonna make this the best for people to understand where it came from. I think it's a learning experience but they also just wanna feel that connection. It's a different experience, it's not just going to get a bite to eat, it's appreciating what it took. For me, I can't do it any other way. - The wonderful thing about Melissa, about everything she does, her whole life, the way she lives her life, is with such passion and such heart. Just everything she does brings that level of energy and passion and love to life and that's what makes her so awesome to be around and so much fun to be part of. - It's a different connection to eating and to food. I don't know, I think it scratches your soul. I think it makes you understand why we're here. - This is the dream. Melissa's created it for everyone. She lights the fire every day, she will continue to light the fire until her last day, and I guarantee her last day will be sending out food to customers. But this is what she was born to do. She can't control it, it pours out of her. - When we first got here, I thought, this is never gonna work. No one's ever gonna come and it's gonna cost too much money to do it. When I walk around here, I feel very proud of what we've done. We have a community that we built in the 16 years since we've been here, of all these wonderful people who understand what we are trying to do. Create a special place where people can feel the connection to the food. It's never-ending. Like, you can never do enough, there's always more to do. So, the work's never done. I wish I had a better answer to that. But I don't.

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