A glimpse into what makes Primo one of the top restaurants in the country

Originally published by Maine Magazine in October 2014

When Chef Melissa Kelly first proposed that I spend her entire workday with her, from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., I assumed that this schedule must be an exception to her usual routine, arranged for my benefit. Surely, a chef of her pedigree, with the accolades to back it up, must have freed herself from the 16-hour workday at this point, right?

I have never been so wrong about anything in my life. If anything, she was taking it down a notch by setting aside time to show me the everyday workings of Primo, her acclaimed Rockland restaurant. I have worked with many, many restaurant crews over the years, and I will tell you this: in most places, Kelly’s job is done by three people. Yet somehow she makes it look easy, and the stereotype of the loud, arrogant chef barking orders at the staff is nowhere to be found. She treats her employees with respect, and they give it back, tenfold.

Kelly shows up at 9 a.m. on the dot in her signature chef attire of black overalls, perfectly suited to a day that is just as likely to be spent out in the field as it is in the kitchen. She suggests that we begin by checking out the gardens, and prepares two cappuccinos to aid us in this endeavor.

The first thing I notice is that this place is a compound, literally. When you visit at night there is no way to get an appreciation for the amount of produce grown here, or the four chicken coups, the beehives, and the whey-fed pigs. She takes me into a barn, where the entire second floor is occupied by the garlic harvest, hanging to dry.

“We learned about this delicate process the hard way, after losing an entire crop to mold one year,” Kelly says. “That’s a lot of hard work down the drain. We are extra-careful not to do it again.”

Out on the farm we run into Price Kushner, who co-owns Primo with Kelly, knee-deep in the process of moving a chicken coop, assisted by two others. The coops are moved every three days, after the chickens have completely fertilized the soil below them. On its own, this kind of work is daunting. Trying to manage both a farm and a very busy restaurantmeans monitoring both crops and livestock all the way from their birth to when they end up on a plate.

Shortly after, I have the privilege of meeting Jacinda Martinez, the head gardener at Primo, who in addition to working the land is also responsible for painstakingly documenting in her logbook every single crop that will make its way into the kitchen each year.

I take this opportunity to ask Kelly about her other two Primo restaurants, located in Orlando and Phoenix. I find out that Marriot Hotel Group runs them, but she has worked out a special deal that allows her to do all of the hiring to ensure that her standards are met. She visits Orlando at least once a month, and Phoenix during the busier seasons—yet another element of an already exhausting schedule.

We conclude our farm excursion with a tour of the custom smokehouse, built a few years back, and a van that has been completely outfitted with equipment to slaughter and process chickens. As I tour this impressive setup, I secretly make plans to take up hiding here, should any sort of apocalyptic event ever come to pass.

After doing her daily organization of the walk-in cooler, Kelly goes about setting up various stations, and I take time to chat with the pastry chef and head baker, Melissa Legare. A significant portion of her day revolves around the venerable, centrally-located wood-fired oven. While there are a few staples available year-round, like focaccia, semolina, and levain, the bakers produce a plethora of breads, depending on the season. Legare tells me that a few of the yeast starters are 15 or 20 years old, and part of her job involves tending to them “as if they were my children.”

It is now mid-morning. The sous chef has arrived and is going over the daily menu changes with Kelly. In the next few hours, food deliveries begin to arrive and are quickly put away. At one point, I look over to see Kelly on the phone, placing orders with her fish purveyor and deveining foie gras at the same time. Twenty minutes later she has relocated to a new station and is fileting mackerel, stopping every now and again to taste a soup or a batter that another cook has in the works.

By 1:00 p.m. the entire kitchen crew is present and moving about with purpose. When I note how quiet it is during prep I learn that everyone is completely in the weeds due to an exceptionally busy service the evening prior. Fearing that I may disrupt the collective concentration of the group, I take a walk outside in the gardens. I am struck by how everything at Primo seems built for functionality, rather than being manicured in a way that is meant to be aesthetically pleasing for the guests. This is actually a working farm, and farm work isn’t always picturesque (and that is a good thing).

It is now 2:30 p.m., and as I make my way back into the kitchen, Kelly asks if I’d like to accompany her as she makes rounds to each station. She begins in the pasta station, discussing the specials with the cook and brainstorming a few modifications, before proceeding to the garde manger, hot line, upstairs food bar, and pastry. After confirming the specials and additions for the evening, we go downstairs to the office, where Kelly reprints the menus on a nightly basis. This is the first time I see her sit down, and I note that I have never heard any semblance of a complaint from her. If you want to know how to run a successful restaurant, this is it. Every day she rolls with what comes out of the gardens and consults inventory sheets totweak the menu and maximize efficiency. She refuses to delegate this work because of her drive—and her desire to make sure everything is done just right.

At 4:30 p.m., after the staff has eaten family meal, which today is a picnic-style spread of hamburgers and hot dogs, she conducts pre-shift meeting with the help of the front of the house manager, Julio Dones-Rogers, while I chat with Kushner about the ludicrous pace that Primo sets, especially during the summer months. The line of customers that has formed outside before the doors open at 5:00 illustrates this point. The kitchen digs in and prepares for the coming onslaught in near military fashion; they even down a tray of espresso shots to keep their minds sharp.

The next four hours involve a virtually nonstop barrage of orders coming through the printer, and Kelly deftly handles every single one, missing nothing. Tickets line up and are routinely stabbed down as plates go out, but not before Kelly inspects each one. No one seems frazzled, yet everyone is moving quickly. It’s impressive that, even when a mistake is made, Kelly handles it quickly and quietly, never breaking the rhythm. There is a constant stream of pans in and out of the brick oven, which is amazing given the sense of timing necessary to be effective with the fire.

Around 9:00 p.m., I am given firm instructions to go upstairs and find myself a seat at the bar. I happily oblige. My feet hurt from simply standing around and watching—a glass of wine is definitely in order. The procession of food that Kelly sends out to me is staggering, including everything from local mackerel crudo to grilled octopus and quail filled with pork and cornbread stuffing and topped with a liberal portion of shaved black summer truffles. Kushner has opened a bottle of Mastroberardino Taurasi Radici Aglianico from Campania, which is absolutely stunning alongside a plate of Kelly’s Neapolitan-style ragu over pappardelle pasta. I take down plate after plate, including a marvelous preparation of skate wing, as well as smoked duck served with red fruits. After every course, the server asks, “Chef wants to know if you can still eat more?” to which I reply, “Yes.” By the time I am confronted with a dish of grilled Vermont lamb, I am regretfully only able to take a few bites for fear of exploding. The couple seated next to me, growing increasingly curious, inquires, “Do you work here?” I respond: “For today, yes.”

Afterwards, around 11:30 p.m., I open bottle of wine with Kelly as she goes down a checklist and places orders for the next day. Meanwhile, the kitchen crew is performing the kind of deep clean that most restaurants do but once a year. Once again, I notice that no one is complaining. This is just what they do, and Kelly is there with them the whole time. She is still at work, so they don’t mind being at work.

As the last of the work gets done, I ask Kelly a question: “If someone were to offer you a million dollars to just walk away from this, would you?”

Her response is, “Absolutely not.”

That’s the real deal, right there.

2 South Main Street | Rockland | (207) 596-0770 | primorestaurant.com