From a young age, Melissa Perello knew she wanted to be a chef. The New Jersey native got her culinary feet wet while working at a country club in Houston, where she grew up.
In 1994, Perello enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Upon graduating, she moved to San Francisco to work under Michael Mina at Aqua, before moving on to Charles Nob Hill with Ron Siegel and, finally, The Fifth Floor.
Time eventually caught up with Perello. Suffering from burn out, she hung up her toque on New Year’s Eve in 2006, and spent time collecting her thoughts while traveling with family and friends. Upon her return to San Francisco, Perello started planning her comeback. Shifting gears from fine dining to a more casual vibe, Perello opened Frances in the Castro neighborhood in 2009. Named after her grandmother, Perello cooked food she wanted to eat every night, like spaghettini with sungold tomatoes, uni butter and Grana Padano, and applewood-smoked bacon beignets with maple-chive crème fraîche. It won the heart of both San Franciscans and Michein inspectors, winning a star in 2011.
In 2015, Perello opened her second restaurant, Octavia. At the 55-seat restaurant named for its location, “chef Perello has a gift for elevating straightforward dishes through the use of superb ingredients and beautifully executed technique,” say Michelin inspectors. Octavia was awarded a star within its first year of business.
When not in her restaurants, Perello and her husband and general manager, Robert Wright, dine out at the many great offerings in San Francisco. “I find it difficult to keep up with every place I want to visit, but some favorites are Rich Table and The Progress, to name a few.”
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Next spring, Perello will head to SoCal to open an unnamed restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. “L.A. is such a great food town and I’m really inspired by all that I’m experiencing and learning as I get more familiar,” she says. “The expansion gives me the opportunity to explore some new offerings such as lunch service, a full bar and open flame cooking.”
Here, we talk to Perello about her relationship with the distinguished red guide.
What was your first encounter with the MICHELIN Guide?
When I first started culinary school at CIA Hyde Park, it became clear almost immediately that the MICHELIN Guide was the benchmark of culinary success. Across the board, the dream was to become a chef with a Michelin star.
What were your thoughts when you knew you received a star?
Being in my late 20's at the time, I was a bit stunned. I didn't expect it. It was a dream come true and at the same time, I knew it meant that now people were watching my work with a certain amount of expectation. The stakes were suddenly higher. You begin to put a microscope on your instincts and when you come out the other side, you do so with a better understanding of yourself and your work. It was both an honor and a challenge to keep pushing and creating. I'm sure my approach to food would be different now if I hadn't questioned everything then.
How did you celebrate?
The team and I spent the evening toasting over some really good Champagne. It's the kind of occasion that warrants breaking out the good stuff.
How much influence/inspiration does the MICHELIN Guide have on your career?
The MICHELIN Guide has a substantial impact on me. It is the most widely respected authority when it comes to our work and it plays an important role in putting any chef and/or restaurant on the map. For many, it's a benchmark of a truly validated culinary career.
Does having a star change the direction of your restaurant?
In some ways—for me, it's been about trying to balance the approachable, neighborhood feeling I wanted to create while still always raising the bar and finding new inspiration.
What advice do you have for young chefs aiming for Michelin stars?
Learn from your mistakes, focus on flavors that you love—the ones that tell your story—and surround yourself with the best team you can find.