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S.F.'s Most Important Female Chef Is More Interested in Food Than Fame
Sara Deseran | Photo: Alanna Hale | December 3, 2015
Melissa Perello doesn’t want to play the publicity game or the gender card. She just wants to cook.
Melissa Perello is one of the most revered chefs in a famously chef-fetishizing town, but she’s not a run-of-the-mill kitchen badass. If she has any tattoos at all, they aren’t apparent. Conversation with her doesn’t veer toward whole-animal butchery, lactic acid fermentation, or rarefied heirloom vegetables. Though she’s known for her deft, maddeningly delicious California-style cooking, she doesn’t rub produce carts with the rest of the city’s top chefs at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, preferring to shop at the less celebrated Marin Civic Center Farmers Market. Publishers have been courting her for years, but she has yet to do the requisite cookbook. She doesn’t even sport a chef’s coat embroidered with her name, opting instead for a white button-down and a linen apron the color of barley.
Perello doesn’t need you to see her name because, in her unassuming way, she has accomplished something that precious few chefs ever do. As the chef-owner of two of the city’s most adored restaurants, six-year-old Frances and eight-month-old Octavia, she’s created an instantly recognizable personal brand, a style of dining that is uniquely hers.
With her strawberry blond hair pulled back into two teeny pigtails and her face prettily fanned with freckles, Perello, 39, comes across as modest, balanced, and decorous—words that could also be used to describe the simple but full-bodied food she serves and the settings in which she serves it. You don’t halt your dinner conversation to analyze Octavia’s chilled squid-ink noodles, which come trimmed with fennel, lemon oil, and bottarga. You just eat them with a sigh of soulful appreciation.
While this approach hasn’t gotten Perello the kind of slavish media attention that attends more inventive chefs, she isn’t hurting for accolades—she has netted three James Beard Rising Star Chef nominations, as well as Michelin stars at both the Fifth Floor and Frances. “I make food that’s heartwarming for people,” she says with a shrug. “Things people want to eat—not to demonstrate my artistry.”
That desire to free food from the banalities of chef-ly ego carries over to how Perello plays the publicity game, or, more accurately, doesn’t. There is a relative paucity of marquee-name female chefs at the top of the heap, especially those who own a successful restaurant—to say nothing of two. But the gender card doesn’t interest Perello. “I get approached every year to do some article,” she says, “and ultimately the question is asked about why there aren’t more female chefs. And I say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. There are a lot of amazing female chefs.’ I think it’s less about women and more about personalities.” The flashy modernist culinary techniques wielded by male chefs, she adds, are also a factor: “Females cook with a more natural style.”
Though she doesn’t seek the mantle of Great Female Chef, Perello has nevertheless created a little incubator for rising female cooks: They make up half of Octavia’s kitchen staff and more than half of Frances’s. Women gravitate toward Perello. “I’ve been working in kitchens for a long time,” says Jen Jackson, Octavia’s sous chef, “and I always felt that as a woman, I had to work two times as hard. But Melissa assumes the best of you. It’s a gift.”
Perello’s accompanying gift for unfussy food has, it’s true, some detractors. An SF Weekly review of Frances noted that while the food was very good, it was disappointingly safe, “hiding behind good ingredients.” While that kind of sentiment used to sting, Perello has made her peace with it. “There are a lot of people who call my food mundane,” she says as she preps kuri squash soup. “And I really don’t give a shit.”
Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco