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Candid Chatter With Melissa Perello Of Frances Fame

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Photo: Jennifer Yin

Melissa Perello opened Castro popularity content winner Frances on December 1st last year. Having worked previously with Michael Mina at Aqua, Ron Siegel at Charles Nob Hill and at Fifth Floor as executive chef, it was her leap "down" from fine dining. Ironically it was also her transition to more local and national food media accolades than ever anticipated or desired. Mind you the woman had in fact, appeared on TV, received some heavy praise from Bon Appetit and three James Beard Rising Star nominations before all this. We sat down for a bit with Ms. Perello this afternoon to find a chef who's not so much touched by all the buzz as deeply rooted in what she stands for and where she came from.

When you opened this restaurant, what was your vision of where you'd be now? I don't know that I had an exact vision of how I anticipated it would all play out. I never expected it to blow up as much as it did. I crossed my fingers that it was going to be successful and that we would stay busy. But it's been busier than I ever anticipated and I never would have thought that a year in we'd still be booked out two months in advance. I always thought we'd be busy for the first few months and usually it slowly tapers off. I never anticipated it to go as strong as it has been. And I'm grateful, obviously I'm psyched.

Were you worried about making the leap to more casual cuisine from fine dining? Was that a fear at all? You know, among a million different fears, it probably was. I'm always waiting for the bottom to fall out [laughs]. But I don't think I was too worried about that. I knew that I had an inclination that at least in SF people were leaning away from fine dining and I felt that during my time at Fifth Floor. I think it's partially the economic situation and partly that people are gravitating now to more comfy-cozy-casual. It's not even that people don't have the money to spend, it's that people want to spend wisely.

When was the turning point when you realized Frances was a bigger deal than you originally intended? Well we got an amazing review from Michael Bauer and then it all just kind of started to trickle in from everywhere. But I think it was when we got the James Beard nomination. It was like holy shit. Wow. I never anticipated that. Yeah it's huge. I felt, it's funny. When I left Fifth Floor I told myself it was OK that I was leaving to do what I wanted to do and go to this more casual, less refined dining scene -- leaving the whole hoity toity notable chef world and that's OK. You know maybe I thought I'd miss a little bit of that. So I never anticipated getting a James Beard nod from this little thing. It was very cool. I was like holy shit, a James Beard nomination. So that was big. So I guess that was the moment, if anything. And then we got Bon Appetit top 10, then Eater SF Restaurant of the Year. And then on top of all that was Michelin and so...I don't know why, I wasn't anticipating getting Michelin, because we're not striving to be a fine dining restaurant. It's a huge honor.

Did you know when Bauer was in? We knew two of the times. One of his visits we didn't. Ah. Do you remember what he ordered? I don't remember what he ordered, but I do remember the first night that we noticed he was here, was the same night Ron Siegel came in to eat. I was really excited to have Ron come in to eat because Ron's like my mentor. And so I was really bummed out. It was a really big deal for me to cook for Ron and it was like aw shit, Bauer's here. What goes down in the kitchen when you find out that Bauer's in the restaurant? I bet the mood changes. I don't know, I mean [laughing] I shit myself. I can imagine the cloud descending over the kitchen. I feel like it's better to not know he's here. It's another level of pressure.

Do you think the praise that you've received affected the concept at all? Have you reacted? We've pretty much stayed the same since day one. The menu format, the pricing. You know I've been really adamant about that too. I've had some people pushing towards upping prices, saying we have the demand so we should charge more, but I don't really want to do that. It was always part of my vision to have something that's a good value.

Do you have plans to change anything going forward? If anything in the future I want to start doing monthly Monday night dinners: a prix fixe menu one night a week. Would that be more refined? It would be more of a tasting menu style with wine pairings and we'd bring in a theme element -- whether it's a wine maker or a certain farm, or a specific ingredient. When do you think you'll start? Possibly towards the end of January. Is it partly because you miss fine dining a little? It would be fun to do special things every once in a while and also bring in guest chef friends maybe even from across the country. That does sound fun. And to give us the opportunity to do something a little different.

So do you have any other New Year plans? What's this talk of another restaurant? Yeah we're looking into another restaurant in the future. For me right now most important is just keeping Frances going. It's been so steadily busy for a long time and I've been trying to keep my head above water and adjust to the business and figure out systems and now that we have all the kinks worked out it's gotten to the point where I want to spend a couple months giving Frances a little shine, a little buffing. We have a couple three-day weekends coming up; so we'll do some painting, spruce some things up, do a little maintenance.

If you did open another restaurant would it be another Frances or a totally different concept? I don't know. I think it would really depend on the location. Frances could have taken 800 different directions depending on what location I found. My business plan was always very malleable. I think I went through maybe five different ones when I was hunting for a location because each location was so different. For instance one of the spaces I looked at was the Quince space in Pac Heights and I don't think what we do here would've worked at there. It's a completely different clientele. I looked at the Ian's space it's now Beast and the Hare. The landlord situation is a little dicey there no? Oh yeah that's pretty much why. I met her and I was like yeah no I don't like that space that much.

And there was so much that worked here from the beginning was there anything you tried at the outset and had to change? [Long pause] I can't think of anything off the top of my head. One thing that did take off was the house wine program. It was surprising how well received it was. So a lot of folks order the carafes. Absolutely. A significant portion of our wine sales come from that because it's such a great value.

Would you be open to another restaurant as soon as next year? We're keeping our eyes open for another location. It would probably be towards the end of the year, but if someone came to me tomorrow and said I know this space is going to be open it's a really great deal; it's a turnkey situation and you could have the keys next month...I hear you. Would you be open to something outside SF? I don't know, but if it was going to happen off-the-cuff I'd say I'd rather open in SF because it's tough to split yourself up amongst different locations. I would never want to compromise Frances.

How often are you here? Now I've gotten really lucky. It's gotten to a point where I don't have to be here seven days a week. I have an amazing staff. So that's why it's like oh god, in order to open up another place you'd give all that up. What neighborhood do you live in? I live in the Lower Haight about eight blocks away so it's really nice to be so close.

What do you do to enjoy yourself on your time off? I go camping when I can. I have a dog, he looks like a dingo. He's called Dingo. So where are your comfort food places in town? I love Nopa a lot. I like Flour + Water. I get the bone marrow and sunchoke pizza. It's really good. I like Pizzeria Delfina a lot. I seem to lean toward Italian food. I don't do it intentionally. I feel like that's what's really good in San Francisco.

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3870 17th Street, San Francisco, CA