K&F: This time, Melissa Close-Hart’s kitchen is all her own

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Photo: John Robinson Photo: John Robinson

Melissa Close-Hart rarely eats breakfast—who has the time? The Junction chef is often in her Belmont restaurant kitchen by 8am and sometimes doesn’t leave until 12:30 in the morning. Such is the price of running the kitchen at one of Charlottesville’s most anticipated restaurants. In the works since 2014, its doors officially opened in January, and Close-Hart is the star of the show, cooking up creative Southwestern dishes like pork tenderloin tostadas and empanadas with sweet potato. She’s used to the spotlight. For 15 years Close-Hart was the executive chef at Barboursville’s Palladio, where she received national and international recognition and earned five invitations to create dinners at the James Beard House in New York City. Opening her own place, though, is a whole new ball game.

Coffee is an important remedy for the long hours, she says, “and, since opening, lots and lots of Red Bull.” Here’s what else she’s been eating and drinking.

Always on the bar: Dark rum

Special-occasion drink: Bubbles of any type, my favorite being pink bubbles.

Lunch spot: Riverside Lunch, Pad Thai, Bodo’s (sometimes for breakfast and lunch)

Chinese restaurant order: I imagine that Red Lantern knows our family from our order; we hardly ever stray from it. Crab rangoons, shrimp egg rolls, wonton soup, hunan chicken, chicken lo mein, crispy beef.

Go-to comfort food: Growing up in the deep South, most foods I had on a regular basis would be considered comfort foods to most people. To me it was just dinner. Anything on a homemade biscuit makes me warm and fuzzy on the inside. Just today I was having a big craving for a comfort food from my childhood—my granny’s pimento cheese on white bread with lots of black pepper.

Sandwich: Bacon, egg and cheese (over medium for the egg, white bread and American)

Unusual ingredient: I love sneaking savory ingredients into desserts, such as a fresh laurel (bay leaf) whipped cream that I made for a dessert special.

Healthy snack: Is there such a thing? Probably hummus and baked pita would be my go-to “healthy” snack.

Unhealthy snack: Again, being from the deep South, if you fry it, I will (most likely) eat it. I do have a sick addiction to Snickers bars.

Condiment: Mayo

Chocolate: The darker the better

Grocery-store cookie: Oreo or Nilla Wafer

Dessert: There are few desserts in this world I don’t like. But if I had to pick just one to call my favorite, it would be warm peach pie with homemade vanilla ice cream. A sun-ripened peach is my all-time favorite fruit.

Beer: I’m more of a cider girl these days. I really like anything from Potter’s Craft.

Ice cream flavor: Peach

Kitchen aroma: Homemade stock cooking Brunch: sweet or savory? Both! I like a savory egg dish for most of it, but will convince those I’m dining with to share a sweet dish.

Always in the home fridge: Condiments, pickles, cider

Always in the pantry: Oreos

Bodo’s order: Breakfast: Everything with cream cheese and bacon. Lunch: Everything with smoked turkey, bacon, cheddar, mayo, red onion and lettuce.

Salad bar toppings: When I was a kid and we would go somewhere with a salad bar, I would come back to the table with all the toppings covered in 1000 Island without a single leaf of lettuce. Imagine a pile of cheese, bacon, croutons, a few veggies (cucumbers mostly), boiled egg, ham, sunflower seeds, etc., drowned in 1000 Island. I’ll admit, to this day, I prefer the toppings to the lettuce.

Cut of meat: Rib-eye, medium rare

Fish: Rockfish or shrimp

Midnight snack: Crunchy peanut butter and strawberry preserves on white bread with plain potato chips crushed up on the sandwich

Knife: Kikuichi 9 1/2″ Warikomi

Appliance: KitchenAid Mixer

Cookbooks: Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Rick Bayless. Much of my personal collection is baking books. I really love the King Arthur cookbooks; every recipe I have used works perfectly. I am on my third copy of Joy of Cooking.

Mentors: Craig Hartman of BBQ Exchange, Frank Stitt of Highlands Bar & Grill, Bottega Café and Chez Fonfon

Dream trip: Anywhere with a beach and an unlimited supply of rum cocktails

Food city: New Orleans

Kitchen shoes: I am actually looking for a new favorite. I may try Vans’ new kitchen line of shoes.

Cooking music: ’80s punk or alternative

First food memory: Cheesy grits

Best meal ever: A staff meal that Luca Paschina cooked at Palladio shortly after I had started. He made a wonderful pot of polenta integra, melted a lot of Saint-André’s triple-cream cheese into it, portioned it, proceeded to shave about 2 ounces of Alba white truffles over the top of each plate. He served it with a great Amarone. Seven ingredients, including water and salt. One of the best meals ever.

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