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Melissa Perello on Frances, Her Favorite SF Eats and Chris Cosentino

The woman merging serious culinary chops and neighborhood charm.

Melissa Perello, 33, began climbing the ranks early: While a student at the CIA in Hyde Park, NY, a meal at SF’s Aqua turned into an externship offer, which turned into a job, which was followed by an offer to work at the former Charles Nob Hill, where she became chef following Ron Siegel’s departure. Next, she took over the helm of the Fifth Floor, earning three stars from the San Francisco Chronicle. Perello was at the top of her game, which is why it came as a huge surprise when, following service on New Year’s Eve 2006, she hung up her apron to take a break. For the last year, she’s been cooking the occasional “Monday Night Dinner” in the Sebo kitchen to get back in the swing of things. Thoughtful and modest—especially considering she’s handily given the culinary boys’ club a run for its money—Perello returns in full force this month with the long-awaited opening of her very own restaurant, Frances (3870 17th St., 415-621-3870, frances-sf.com), giving the Castro something to celebrate.

Your departure from the Fifth Floor, shortly after earning three stars, seemed to a lot of people like a crazy move. Why’d you do it?
To tell you the truth, I was just burned out. I started to wonder if I even wanted to be a chef when I grew up. I had just stopped enjoying myself. I traveled to New Zealand and Italy. I renovated the kitchen in my [Lower Haight] house with my dad. I gave myself an entire year to think about what I really wanted to do. By the end of it I realized I missed cooking.
I missed my chef friends.

What SF chefs do you consider mentors?
Well, certainly Ron Siegel. I learned more working for him then I did during my entire time at culinary school, and not just about being a chef, but about being a person. He was so generous. When I did my externship at Aqua I was working with Chris L’Hommedieu, Jeffrey Lloyd, Jay Wetzel and Victor Scargle. I was 18 years old. Those guys were like big brothers. And certainly Michael Mina. He’s such an incredible chef and business person. Over the last few months, I’ve called him a lot.

Tell us about Frances. Where did you come up with the name?
The restaurant is named for my grandmother. Every summer growing up I got shipped off to stay with her in Texas. There wasn’t much to do there, but I kind of became obsessed with PBS cooking shows. My grandmother would let me help with dinner.

What kind of food do you plan to serve?
Even though I have a fine-dining background, this will not be a fine-dining restaurant. I want it to be a casual, comfortable place. As for the food, I guess I’d just say market-driven. If you’d asked me five years ago I would have told you French food, but now I’m much more comfortable drawing influences from other places—Moroccan spices, Italian techniques.

Will your boyfriend [chef Danny Dunham of Sebo] be joining you in the kitchen at Frances?
No [laughs]. We think it’s best if we keep it separate.

What are some of your favorite things to eat in San Francisco?

I recently had a great meal at La Ciccia. Their spaghetti with bottarga rocks. And the bacon-and-egg pizza at Gialina, the grilled cheese at Hog Island Oyster Company and Zuni’s chicken.On a recent episode of Chefs vs. City, you competed (with teammate Anna Wankel) against chefs Aaron Sanchez and Chris Cosentino.

What was that like?

We’re all friends, so I thought we’d just goof off the entire time. The most difficult challenge was the “meat puzzle.” The four of us walked into the CCA, and there was an entire steer cut up into semi-primal cuts. Each team was supposed to put one half of the steer “back together” in the correct order. I thought Chris had it in the bag, being the meat guy, but he and I just looked at one another and it was clear we had no idea what we were doing. It was embarrassing! I don’t think either team ever finished; I think they just ran out of tape!