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The Tastemaker

We Miss Restaurants.

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then ours are overflowing for restaurants in this moment. The role that these communal settings play in our lives as places of celebration, nourishment and conviviality has never been more deeply felt. Having worked with some of the most high-profile establishments in the world, we can attest that Chef Melissa Perello’s eateries from Octavia and Frances in San Francisco to M. Georgina in Los Angeles are some of the warmest and most hospitable around, a true reflection of their owner. They are among the handful of places we can’t wait to return to once they are able to safely open their doors to diners again.

Until then, here’s our love letter to Melissa as first seen in The Current, Vol. 2, earlier this year...

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M. Georgina is a 4500-square-foot shrine to culinary ingenuity and not an inch of space is wasted. Whole beasts smoke and sizzle on hot coals over here. Dry goods stand at attention on rows of open shelves over there. There are stations for prepping the housemade ricotta cheese, yogurt and other from-scratch ingredients that populate the menu, plus uncommonly delicious bread and butter at the ready and an open-air pick-up window called The Slip for lunch on the go. Everything about this restaurant, right down to its slick glass-and-metal construction, exists for one reason: to bring chef-owner Melissa Perello’s brand of elevated yet accessible market-driven food to delicious life in the biggest and best possible way.

Situated prominently within ROW DTLA, a sprawling mixed-use development in Los Angeles’ burgeoning Arts District, M. Georgina feels like a secret discovery—at once unique within the landscape of LA’s evolving food scene and also completely at home among the new tastemaker- led restaurants propelling the city’s palate forward. Like its location, M. Georgina manages a delicate balancing act; it is historic yet experimental, old-school with a new vision, foundational in technique yet fluid in expression, serious and unsentimental but with a whiff of whimsy.

It’s a bigger, bolder, glitzier twist on the kind of high- quality, unpretentious flavor that has become Melissa’s signature over the past decade, and propelled both of her San Francisco restaurants, Frances and Octavia, from dining spots to destinations.

But while the move feels like the natural next step in her career trajectory now, the road to LA was paved slowly. Very slowly. “Los Angeles was never part of the plan,” she says. “I had no thoughts of leaving San Francisco. At all.”

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But other forces were at work behind the scenes. For the better part of the past eight years, the developers behind ROW DTLA had been courting Melissa from afar, checking in every so often in an effort to convince her that LA—and their complex—was the place for her next restaurant. In their minds, she was integral to the project and they wanted her as an anchor.

“That’s when I started thinking, this might be worth considering,” Melissa says. “Then I started getting interested and it all snowballed from there. The food scene in LA has changed so dramatically over the past few years, and I was struck by how exciting it all felt. I wasn’t expecting it, but I also couldn’t deny it. It just felt right.”

To understand the influences behind Melissa’s culinary vision, it’s crucial to go back in time. Before she became the darling of the food world for reinvigorating San Francisco’s fabled Charles Nob Hill restaurant at the tender age of twenty-four, before she became one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs at twenty-seven, before the accolades and the Michelin star she earned at Fifth Floor restaurant, before she opened two restaurants of her own and earned two additional Michelin stars for those, too, and long before this LA venture ever presented itself, Melissa Perello was a little girl toggling between two seemingly disparate destinations that heavily shaped the kind of chef she would become: New Jersey and Texas.

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Mac shown in blackened pewter finish with blackened pewter accents and hewn brass shade interior finish. Interiors by Melissa Perello as seen in Octavia, San Francisco, CA.

“When I was younger, we lived in Hackensack, New Jersey, where my father’s family was from,” she says, “so in the summers, my parents would ship us off to Texas, where my mother’s family was from, for six to eight weeks. We’d be in the middle of nowhere, in northern Texas, the panhandle, with nothing to do.” To stave off boredom, Melissa watched cooking shows on PBS. Soon, she was spellbound by the dishes she saw chefs like Nathalie Dupree, Jacques Pépin and Julia Child conjuring on the screen. “I’d go home to New Jersey with this whole repertoire of things to cook,” she says. “I remember being about seven or eight years old telling my mom that I just had to cook this leg of lamb dish I had seen and she was like, ‘Alright.’ So we went and got two legs of lamb and bound them and stuffed them with thyme and dijon mustard and then roasted them on the grill just like I had seen. I was very fortunate that my parents always gave me the opportunity and space to just play around in the kitchen.” It helped that her grandmother, Frances, for whom Melissa named her first restaurant, was also a proficient and enthusiastic home cook who nurtured the passion she saw budding in her granddaughter.

Later, when the family moved from New Jersey to Texas, the lure of restaurants continued to tug on her. “I can’t remember my first restaurant experience, but I do remember dragging my parents out to a lot of fine dining spots in my younger years, which is kind of strange for a kid growing up in Texas,” she says. “I was obsessed with the level of service and the way the plates were executed so artfully.”

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, in the mid 1990s, Melissa moved to San Francisco, cutting her teeth under the toque of chef Michael Mina at Aqua. From there, she went on to Charles Nob Hill, where her star began to rise after she took over the head chef reins following her mentor Ron Siegel’s departure. “Ron was the first person who showed me the way the front and back of a restaurant could and should work together,” she says. “He was always out in the dining room, selecting linens and certain types of glassware. He was very exacting, and it made me realize that a restaurant is more than just its kitchen and I could impact diners beyond just the food I was serving. I could give them an experience.” A subsequent stint at Fifth Floor, another lauded but now shuttered San Francisco restaurant, earned Melissa her first Michelin star. But she was tired.

At the end of 2006, she decided to take a break and reassess her path. The time away was therapeutic and cathartic and by 2009, she had returned to the food world, this time with a restaurant all her own.

Frances was an instant success and a reminder that refined food with market-fresh ingredients and soulful flavor didn’t have to be fussy or uptight. Its sister restaurant, Octavia, channeled that same message when it opened in 2015. By 2017, Melissa had earned two more Michelin stars.

In today’s food-obsessed world, where chefs are influencers whose profiles rise and fall as spectacularly as those of film stars and reality show celebrities, Melissa’s longevity and steadfast resolve are no small accomplishment. Those early years and that nascent spark for cooking, combined with time spent burnishing her culinary credibility in San Francisco, instilled in her three things that, in hindsight, likely contributed to that enduring success: the first, a deeply rooted appreciation for food inherited from older generations; the second, a love of the energy of restaurant dining, along with an awareness of the sense of pageantry that goes along with it and a keen ability to separate artistry from artifice; the third, an intuitive understanding that a meal is meant to savor as well as sustain.

M. Georgina, named for Melissa’s father’s mother this time, is a reflection of how all of those attributes, when combined, have the power to create real culinary alchemy—but the magic extends beyond just the food. As a chef, Melissa has always thrived on the sense of community a restaurant naturally creates, from the chemistry of the staff to the vibe of the people in the dining room. As a restaurateur, she applies that spirit of connection to the non-culinary aspects of the business, as well, especially when it comes to design. “It is extremely important to me to collaborate with people who share my sensibility and commitment to quality,” she says, “which is why I’m involved in every decision that goes into creating and sustaining my restaurants.”

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From the water glasses at M. Georgina she personally sourced for their “superior hand feel” to the culinary antiques she works with Bay Area dealer Laurie Furber at Elsie Green to find, her exacting eye is evident everywhere.

“Relationships are very important to me,” Melissa says. “When we opened Frances, I worked with a ceramicist named Akiko Graham out of Seattle to make a lot of special things. Then, with Octavia, I met Sarah Kersten, who’s another ceramicist out of Berkeley, and really loved her work. She’s most known for these fermentation crocks, which are really beautiful. After we collaborated on the dishes for Octavia, everyone wanted them. Now they’re part of her full line. Most recently, we worked together to create a whole new set of special plates for M. Georgina. So in a lot of ways we kind of grew together.”

To build the wood-burning oven and hearth that sits center stage at M. Georgina, Melissa enlisted the Oregon-based specialist, Jeremiah Thorndike Church. For lighting, she scoured magazines and antiques auctions for inspiration before discovering some Urban Electric fixtures, which now boost the restaurant’s glow. Her father, a hobbyist carpenter with near-professional skills, contributed to the woodworking by building some of the restaurant’s banquette seating—a tradition continued from the days in San Francisco, when he and Melissa supervised most of the design and build-out of Frances and Octavia. “I inherited my drive and pluck from my dad,” she says. Indeed, there isn’t much that escapes Melissa Perello’s watchful eye and uncompromising standards.

Just months into M. Georgina’s run, the restaurant is already garnering rave reviews from critics and diners, further cementing Melissa’s place in the firmament of star chefs. For her part, though, fame is beside the point. The glory of a restaurant, she feels, firmly rests in two things: the dishes and the details. “It’s about being thoughtful with every element of the experience, whether it’s the cooking or the design. Precision is everything,” she says, “and precision pays off.”