Best New Chef 2004 Melissa Perello is known for polished, big-flavored dishes like crisp and smoky bacon beignets with chive-spiked crème fraîche at Frances in San Francisco. She tells F&W about her favorite pear brandy, an easy way to make citrus salt and how to hide dirty dishes during a dinner party.
What are your favorite holiday food gifts?
I love to give great olive oils. Locally, Cimarossa comes from Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain, and tastes robust and sharp with bright, green flavors. An Italian oil I enjoy is Francesco de Padova, from Puglia; it’s also well rounded yet has these lively, pronounced flavors.
Homemade spice blends or seasoned salts, like herb or citrus salt. For herb salt, I’ll pulverize dried garden herbs in a blender and toss them with a nice flake salt like Maldon. For citrus salt, I’ll take a bunch of random citrus fruits, run them on a Microplane to get a couple of tablespoons of zest, and stir that with a couple of drops of plain salad oil. Then I’ll wring it out in a piece of cheesecloth or a napkin and toss the citrus oil with salt, also usually a flake salt. To make about a cup of citrus salt, you probably want to start with the zest of 6 or 7 limes, lemons or oranges.
Anything that can be packed up in a Weck jar—they come in all these unique shapes and sizes, and they’re super cute. They’re perfect for jams or jellies; we also give loyal customers a Weck jar of a duck liver mousse with a jar of shallots and date jam.
What’s your holiday cocktail?
I love a drink called the Perfect Pear, with a splash of spiced apple cider, pear brandy, sometimes vodka, and a little lemon juice, or sometimes lime juice or OJ. I’m not much of a cocktail drinker, but I like the rich flavor of the pear brandy, or Poire William in French—particularly François Peyrot pear brandy, that’s my go-to.
Can you share one great entertaining tip?
I like to clean as I go as much as possible so my guests don’t feel obligated to help clean up at the end of a meal. I have a Fisher-Paykel double-drawer dishwasher, so I usually cram all of the dirty dishes in the bottom drawer while no one is looking, and they magically disappear until everyone has left! That machine is my favorite thing in my kitchen.
What are your 5 top don’t-miss places on a holiday trip to the Bay Area?
What’s your most requested recipe, the one dish you’re most known for?
Either our Lumberjack cake or our duck liver mousse. The cake is almost like a sticky toffee pudding—without pecans on top—that’s been on our menu since we opened. It’s really dense, with coconut in it, and pears and apples, sometimes zucchini or peaches in the summer, sometimes kumquats in the winter. It’s one of those things you have to eat to get it, but people love it and we cannot take it off our menu.
Our duck liver mousse has a lot of bacon, so it’s very smoky, rich and creamy, it’s just really indulgent. We sauté duck and chicken livers with bacon, caramelized shallots, cream and butter, garlic and thyme. And usually some sort alcohol, whether Cognac or brandy or Calvados. And sometimes pear brandy.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
Of all time, I can’t really say, but I enjoy At Elizabeth David’s Table, by Elizabeth David. The publisher took a bunch of her recipes from several of her books and republished them with photographs, along with an introduction by Ruth Reichl. I like the way her recipes are written, not as a list of ingredients followed by procedures, more as a guide. That’s how I cook—very loosely. I don’t like precise recipes, but I love suggestions and inspiration. From her writing, too, she seems like somebody I would have loved to have met and had lunch with.
What’s one technique everyone should know?
Brining meats. It’s such a simple procedure, and you can do it in so many different ways. You start with a simple base of salt and water, and take it from there. Sugar helps the meat caramelize as it cooks. For pork, I might also add warm spices like clove and allspice, coriander, cinnamon and star anise. For chicken I would probably go more of the citrus route, with lemon or orange peel, but it would depend on the theme of the meal. With turkey I’d just do a standard overnight brine with garlic and thyme. The salt ratio varies depending on how long you want to brine the meat; the longer the brine, the less salt, and vice versa. To prepare a brine even more quickly, you can dissolve the salt and sugar and steep the spices in only half the water, then add the remaining water straight from the cold tap to cool it quickly. You can brine something for anywhere from a few hours for a few days; it’s a great way to preserve meat that you don’t want to cook right away.
Why Because although she's only 27, she knows exactly what makes a dish work. Her sheep's-milk ricotta gnocchi are sophisticated yet uncomplicated.
Born Hackensack, NJ, 1976.
Education The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY.
Experience Aqua, San Francisco.
On starting her career "While I was in high school in Houston, I got a job cooking in a country club kitchen to get experience. I worked 40 hours a week and didn't do much else."
Career turning point While dining at Aqua before beginning cooking school, Perello got invited back to the kitchen. She impressed the chefs so much that they offered her an externship.
Most humbling moment "A few years ago, when I was going through a grilling phase, I brought my hibachi in to work. All of a sudden there was a lot of smoke, and then thousands of firemen showed up. San Francisco firemen are really cute, and we got to check them out through the little window in the kitchen."
Pet peeve Disorganization. "I'm a Virgo, so I'm anal-retentive. I like my sauces in one spot, salt and pepper in another spot, spoons to be here, butter to be there. The first thing I do at work is rearrange everything; the line cooks roll their eyes."
Favorite kitchen tool A microwave oven. "It saves your life when someone's waiting for short ribs and you forgot to heat them up."
Won Best New Chef at: Charles Nob Hill; San Francisco (closed)