Melissa Perello was born in Nutley, N.J., lived in Houston, and went to cooking school in upstate New York, but San Francisco is where the 32-year-old chef formed her restaurant bones. She arrived here fresh from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., to gig with mentor Michael Mina at Aqua. She later moved to Aqua's sister eatery, Charles Nob Hill, to work alongside Ron Siegel, eventually moving up to executive chef.It was at Charles that Perello's California-inspired French cuisine won her a trophy case worth of accolades; 2002 Chronicle Rising Star Chef, three James Beard Rising Star nominations (2002, 2003, and 2004), and a spot on Food and Wine's list of best new chefs for 2004. She joined Fifth Floor as executive chef, and snagged a Michelin star in 2006. And yeah, that was Perello (with friend Anna Wankel) racing across San Francisco this summer in the hometown episode of Food Network's Chefs vs. City, battling Chris Cosentino and Aaron Sanchez.
Mondays, Perello's been drawing foodies to Sebo in Hayes Valley, for ingredient-driven menus with a whiff of American rustic. But these days, she's in the final throes of opening her own place in the Castro, Frances (3870 17th St. at Pond) -- look for it to open around Thanksgiving. It's named after her grandmother, with whom she spent summers cooking in Northern Texas. After the upscale settings of Aqua, Charles Nob Hill, and Fifth Floor, Perello is eager to offer seasonal American cooking, showcasing artisanal products from Northern California farmers, in a neighborhood setting.
SFoodie: What definitive moment made you realize you had to be in the kitchen?
Perello: No true definitive moment, really. I was just always a very strangely focused kid -- knew I wanted to go to culinary school by the time I started high school. My mom has a story she loves to tell of how she came home from work one day to find me boning out a leg of lamb. I was like 10 or something. I would watch cooking shows 24/7 (such a dork!) and try to re-create them for dinner. My grandmother Frances (the restaurant's namesake) was a big encouragement. I would spend summers with my grandparents and she was always cooking, me at her side, peeling, rolling, cutting, etc.
Flavors, ingredients, or techniques you have an irrational attachment to?
I'm big on braising or roasting almost anything you throw at me. If all else fails I love to throw it in the oven with a fair hand of seasoning, a little olive oil, and cook until the flavors of a slow oven make the ingredients shine.
Most overrated ingredient in S.F?
Pork everything ... not that I'm not a fan, a huge fan, cuz I am! And I cook much of it myself. Just a little oversaturated with hog exposure.
Favorite off-night restaurant?
Nopa - it's close to home (walking distance). Always great food, atmosphere, and drinks.
Current guilty pleasure?
Chicken tikka kati rolls at Kasa, around the corner from Frances.
Favorite music to cook by?
What show would you pitch to Food Network?
Honestly, I would never pitch a show, nor be truly inspired to star in one - that's just not my cup of tea. But if pressed, I'm inclined to say a show that is actually about cooking, plain and simple. I'm a big fan of the cooking programs on PBS Saturday mornings: Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie, America's Test Kitchen, José Andrés' Made in Spain, etc.
Favorite food city?
San Francisco. For what it's worth, we do have everything under the sun within a short drive or stone's throw.
Favorite food trend in S.F.?
I always appreciate a great sandwich, and especially the reinvention of a great dish in the form of a sandwich.
Most overrated food trend?
Paying too much for anything.