Interview with Chef Melissa Perello of Fifth Floor - San Francisco

October, 2005

Antoinette Bruno: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Melissa Perello: I grew up spending my summers in Texas with my grandparents, baking and watching cooking programs on PBS. I come from a family of artists and have been drawn to the creative element of cooking.

AB: Did you attend culinary school?
MP: I went to the Culinary Institute of America. I think you receive as much out of culinary school as you put into it. The resources at the CIA are amazing, but you have to take advantage of them. I also think you should get experience in a kitchen before you go to school.

AB:Who are your mentors? What chefs do you most admire?
MP: Michael Mina, who helped me gain technique, and Ron Siegel, who taught me about the simplicity of food. I would say that I most admire Thomas Keller for his tenacity and work ethic, and Alice Waters for her vision.

AB:Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like?
MP:Fennel pollen. I like the versatility of it – the floral side rather than the strong anise flavor.

AB:Is there a culinary technique that you either created or use in an unusual way?
MP: I’ve become quite fond of the Pacojet lately. We make a very flavorful fine purée or reduction as a base flavor, for instance, English pea purée or lobster reduction. Then we add a bit of gelatin and cream, chill in a Paco container, and “Pacotize” as needed. It gives you a really nice textured mousse that can then be used as a garnish on another dish, or as a small dish in itself with a few other components as a garnish.

AB: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
MP: Where do you see yourself in 5 and 10 years? What do you expect from those you work with and from me? This helps me determine how they will fit into my team.

AB: What advice would you give to aspiring young chefs?
MP: Start getting your feet wet by gaining experience in the kitchen. Approach a chef that you respect and work for free to get exposure before going to school.

AB: Where would you like to travel for culinary research purposes?
MP: London to visit the Fat Duck. I would just love to see the novelty of it!

AB: What are your favorite restaurants in San Francisco?
MP: For everyday grub, I like Rosamunde Sausage Grill on Haight and Fillmore. For Mexican food I like Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant on Geary and 23rd. They have the best selection of 100% agave tequila.

AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry right now?
MP: I see cooking being ingredient-driven and stylish. I wonder, though, if cooking is going to be rustic or wild-and-crazy fare that is entertaining.

AB: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?
MP: In 5 to 10 years I want to open an inn on the coast in California.