Does chef Melissa Close-Hart pinch herself when she arrives at work—a restaurant surrounded by vineyards, with a kitchen garden tended by a horticulturalist and ingredients raised by local farmers who plant to her specifications?
By Dyan Carlson • Photographs by Laura Merricks
Melissa Close-Hart is living a professional chef’s dream. For 10 years, she has headed the kitchen at Palladio, the restaurant at Barboursville Vineyards, and under her guidance and that of winemaker and general manager Luca Paschina, the restaurant has earned a reputation for being one of the best in Virginia. She arrived at this enviable position after a significant career change.
Close-Hart grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and had worked in restaurants since she was driving age. She believed she was destined to be a teacher, but after acquiring two bachelor degrees in sociology and psychology and a master’s in education, she came to the realization that what she was really meant to do was cook. At 27 years old, she gave up her teaching career and enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute.
A Little Italy in Virginia
She went on to work with chef Frank Stitt at Bottega Restaurant and Café in Birmingham, Alabama, where she learned to use local ingredients at a time when local food movements were just beginning. Her understanding and love of Italian cuisine continued to grow when she joined the kitchen at Rose Pistola in San Francisco. Later, chef Craig Hartman, a culinary mentor and close friend, invited her to The Cliff House at Pikes Peak in Colorado.
Hartman eventually left Colorado to head Fossett’s at Keswick Hall, and shortly after Close-Hart also made the move to Virginia to head the kitchen at the one-year-old Palladio. Her training in Italian cooking was a perfect match for a restaurant situated among 150 acres of vineyard, founded by Italy’s Zonin family in the mid 1970s and now managed by Paschina, who came to Virginia’s Piedmont from Italy’s Piemonte.
Close-Hart’s cooking philosophy is very simple: Buy only the best ingredients and showcase them by simply letting their flavors speak—just the way her momma taught her. “Regional American Southern cuisine is very much like regional Italian cooking. Looking at what is fresh from the garden or at the market and preparing it so that the flavors shine through,” she says. For example, her twist on a traditional Italian offering of prosciutto e melone becomes an appetizer trio of a prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe “cloud,” a salad of fresh melon and crispy proscuitto, and melon-mint sorbet.
She has drawn national and international attention: she has been named a semifinalist for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation, which has also invited her on three separate occasions to cook at the foundation’s headquarters in New York City. She has also remained a teacher—with a kitchen as a classroom. One position on her kitchen staff is always reserved for an intern; she also sits on the student advisory board at her alma mater.
The menu at Palladio changes every two months in response to seasonal produce. Close-Hart estimates that about 70 percent of the ingredients on the August 2010 menu came from within 70 miles of the restaurant. Before the growing season starts, Close-Hart sits down with Spring Lake Farms owners Jan Richter and Barry Siegel and plans what will be grown just for her.
For extra special requests, such as broccolo romanesco, she consults with Barboursville’s staff horticulturist, who allots 300 square feet of precious Barboursville soil just for the restaurant; this is in addition to the massive herb garden just steps away from the kitchen. Close-Hart laughs when asked whether she has a garden at home. “I get to play all day in the gardens here! Why would I want to have to work at my own garden?”
Wine pairings at Palladio reveal the complementary relationship that Close-Hart and Paschina have developed over the past 10 years. Barboursville wines are flawlessly matched with diners’ selections from the menu. For special wine dinners or occasions when sommelier Alessandro Medici would like to feature a certain type of wine, the process is reversed: Close-Hart develops dishes to enhance the flavors of the wines.
When asked for tips on pairing wine with food, Close-Hart replies, with Southern understatement, “Know that it is a trial-and-error process. Be patient. Don’t be afraid to take chances, but most importantly, drink what you like.”
17655 Winery Rd., Barboursville, VA
Dyan Carlson is a professionally trained chef, part-time freelance writer, and full-time innkeeper living near Charlottesville. Discovering new restaurants, supporting local farms, and participating in the Slow Food movement are just a few of her passions.