Just got an e-mail from Lew Bryson that told of the passing of a mutual friend of ours, the very talented chef Larry Melissen. Larry toiled as a baker for Jamison's Bakery and for the famous chef Paul Roller at Roller's restaurant in Philadelphia's Chestnut Hill, and used to join Roller for a late night after work beer at McMenamin's Tavern in nearby Mt Airy, and came to know owner PJ McMenamin and the crew there. Larry was a baker at heart, and eventually, as PJ was refining and upgrading the food at McMenamin's, asked Larry if he could bake some desserts for the place. And when the tavern lost its chef, Larry stepped in and never looked back, taking McMenamin's for nearly 10 years where it never could have imagined itself, upscale dining in a neighborhood tavern setting. We call it "gastropub" food now, but back then there wasn't a term for it. But it was some spectacular cooking. Brilliant, multiple-award-winning hot wings. Deftly done pastas, surprising seafood creations, even petit filet mignon, alongside fish & chips and Irish lamb stew and burgers.
But I remember stopping in one night with our friend Bob Rescinito, who was visiting from Oklahoma City, and there on the specials menu were "Beggars's Purses in Sage Cream," pasta stuffed with wild mushrooms. "Just something I threw together at the last minute with some leftover dough," Larry said when he stopped by our table to chat. They were exquisitely delicate pinched pasta bundles in a light toss of sauce. It was a loud, raucous Friday night in Mt Airy, and the airy pasta played perfectly off the bitter IPAs we were drinking. The juxtaposition made no sense at the time, but it made perfect sense to Larry, and his instincts were spot on. I had one of the most intensely creative, memorable meals I've ever had in a pub that night, several years before it would become trendy. Lew Bryson had a similar, eye-opening experience, and he recalls Melissen's work on his blog.
I wrote about Larry online on Prodigy and eGullet back then, and profiled him and a couple of other chefs for an article in the Philadelphia Daily News in 2006, about chefs who work in tiny kitchens.
But Larry was so much more than a big burly chef who worked in a tiny kitchen (but it was an amazing sight to see, Larry and a staff of 3 dancing in just under 70 square feet of space!). Larry was a quiet, confident visionary. A big friendly bear. And a very generous and talented man.