There are no women on the real Mount Rushmore. Since there still hasn’t been a female U.S. president, there are not even any candidates. Although the realm of restaurant chefs is not quite as male-dominated, it’s not far off. For whatever reason, in Charlottesville as elsewhere, the top restaurant kitchens are still usually run by men.
Melissa Close-Hart, who for 13 years has been executive chef of the Italian fine dining spot Palladio Restaurant at Barboursville Vineyards, is a shining exception to the rule. In that time, Close-Hart has beaten out her male counterparts by winning more national acclaim than any chef in the area, including four semi-finalist nods for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic by the prestigious James Beard Foundation. And, no area chef has hosted as many nationally renowned chefs. Roberto Donna (Galileo), Patrick O’Connell (Inn at Little Washington), and Michel Richard (Citronelle) have all joined Close-Hart for guest chef dinners at Palladio.
Close-Hart believes that, in some ways, being a woman has actually helped her succeed, citing as an example her gentler approach to running a kitchen. While training at the New England Culinary Institute, Close-Hart was so motherly that her peers called her “Mama Mel”—a nickname she earned by always trying to make sure her classmates were doing O.K. At Palladio, that maternal approach means a more nurturing leadership style in the kitchen. “Let them create,” Close-Hart says of her kitchen staff. This has helped her retain the same chefs in her kitchen for far longer than is the norm.
Mike Yager, a former sous chef who stayed with Close-Hart for six years, was so inspired by her that his real mother would refer to her as his “Virginia mother.” Rising Star Amalia Scatena, a former intern turned line cook for Close-Hart, said Close-Hart showed her “what a strong female should represent in the kitchen.”
Close-Hart first came to the area in 1997 for an internship at Clifton Inn under fellow Mount Rushmore chef Craig Hartman. She later spent two years with Hartman as his executive sous chef at Cliff House in Colorado Springs. In 2000, she returned to the Charlottesville area to take over the kitchen at Palladio, where she has remained ever since.
Initially, Palladio’s location at a well-known vineyard like Barboursville helped elevate its profile. Soon, it was the other way around. As word spread about Close-Hart’s food, the restaurant brought notoriety to the winery. Several years ago, Close-Hart recalls, Barboursville owner Luca Paschina was at an event when one of the attendees told him that he had never heard of Barboursville but was familiar with Palladio. James Beard nominations have a way of doing that.
Yet, when female chefs achieve greatness, people often talk not just about their food but also their gender. Close-Hart, the mother of the Charlottesville food community, was Hartman’s first ever guest on his podcast “Chew the Fat,” where he interviews chefs and other food folks. How did he introduce her? “One of the finest female chefs in the entire United States,” he said, before quickly correcting himself. “Finest chef, male or female.”
To read about Melissa’s pick for Charlottesville’s Rising Star, click here!
Get your fill
“At Palladio, our menu changes every two months from top to bottom. This allows us to stay in season and utilize the best of what our garden and local farmers produce. This makes it difficult to choose a ‘signature’ dish. We seldom even repeat the same dish twice, but occasionally some dishes do reappear because they are some of our clients’ favorites, as well as my favorites. With fall in the air, I have a hard time not craving our Ravioli di Zucca. It is a housemade pasta tortellini filled with roasted Spring Gate Farms butternut squash that has been flavored with amaretti and parmesan. It is served in a rich, sage-infused butter sauce and topped with toasted pumpkin seeds. This dish pairs perfectly with Barboursville Vineyards Vermentino, one of our newest varietals.”
Dessert: Splendora’s gianduia and pistachio gelatos
Virginia beer/cider: Bold Rock Virginia Apple
Hangover food: Mel’s hamburger steak with onions, extra gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, and a buttered roll.
Bodo’s order: Everything bagel with cream cheese and bacon
Local ingredient: Caromont Farm goat cheese
Sandwich: I love sandwiches, so this is tough. A Pulled Pork Sandwich with Hog Fire Sauce and Southern Slaw from BBQ Exchange; The Cuban from Stonefire Kitchen; Fried Green Tomato & Pimento Cheese Biscuit from Ace’s; Cheesesteak from Fabio’s on High Street; Five Easy Pieces from Little John’s
Burger: Cheeseburger All the Way from Riverside plus a side of Fries with extra seasoning salt
Cocktail: I tend to meet my husband at his restaurant, The Local, after our long doubles on Fridays and Saturdays to have a cocktail before heading home. I always get a Mount Gay & Ginger Ale with Extra Lime. Just having the time to unwind and talk about our day in a great atmosphere is very relaxing to me. And at that hour it is mostly restaurant folk, so it has that familiar feel that I believe most in the business like after a long shift.
Virginia Wine: Well, I have worked at Barboursville Vineyards for 13 years this October, so my favorite winery is definitely Barboursville. Over the 13 years, my favorite has changed many times, but currently it has been our Viognier. But with the nights cooling off, I will probably start leaning towards the Merlot Reserve. I also have a hard time passing up our new Rose Brut, it is divine.
Breakfast: My family’s go to for breakfast is Tip Top. The service is always excellent and the food is very consistent. I usually go for the Biscuits and Gravy with a side of Grits. If for some small miracle I get a Sunday off and get to go enjoy brunch, I head for Beer Run for a plate of their fabulous French Toast and a Mimosa or to Rapture for a great southern twist brunch.
Guilty Pleasure: I don’t usually feel guilty about food – I enjoy it all! But if I had to pick one it would have to be Waffle House Bacon, Egg & Cheese Texas Melt with an order of Scattered, Smothered & Covered Hashbrowns. This could easily be my hangover food as well.
Pizza: Christian’s Pepperoni Pizza
Appetizer: I have a hard time not getting the Crispy Shrimp from The Local every time I go into the restaurant. And since my husband is the chef there, I tend to go there quite a bit. I love the balance of sweet, spicy and all around goodness of the dish!
Taco: La Michoacana – any type. We always get a mix/match of tacos and share. I love them all.