Sweet Melissa’s Cafe, Sanibel

Chef Talmage shares her path to Sweet Melissa’s Café.

A family that didn’t cook, a detour from law school, the September 11 crisis, Hurricane Katrina, and an untimely death: One might say that a series of curious events – perhaps even inescapable fate – landed Melissa Talmage in a restaurant on Sanibel that bears her name and has been called the island’s best.

“I didn’t come from one of those families that cooks all the time, and so

Sweet Melissa's fish stew extraordinaire

that’s how you learn to cook,” Talmage, chef at Sweet Melissa’s Café, told me recently during a short but rare break from the kitchen.

Instead, she came from one of those families that eats out all the time, so that’s how she learned a love of restaurants.

“I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, outside of Philly,” she said. “My mom worked in Philly, my dad in Manhattan; so we were always going out to eat in Philly and New York.”

After Talmage graduated from college with a political science major, she went to work for a New York City council member with an $18,000-a-year salary, leaving her with fine-restaurant tastes on a fast-food budget.

So she learned to cook at home out of necessity. Around the same time, she met her husband-to-be, John, and started cooking for him. Her plan was to go back to law school after her first child, Olivia, was born in1999. That’s where the detour came in.

“My father asked me: if I could do anything in the world, what would it be,” Talmage remembers.

Her decision to pursue cooking ended her up at the French Culinary Institute in Soho for a six-month program. In a lucky turn of events, Michael Romano of New York City’s Union Square Café fame later hired her as a prep cook.

The devastation of 9-11 sent the family to New Orleans, where she worked at the famed Commander’s Palace for almost three years and honed her skills.

“I worked every station in that kitchen,” she says with a cross between a smile and grimace. In the meantime, little Benjamin popped “out of the oven” in 2002.

Talmage later moved onto John Besh’s award-winning August restaurant just about the time Katrina flooded the town.

“That’s how we got blown down here,” Talmage says, shaking her head with a laugh. “I had family here. My parents live on Captiva.”

She was lured also to the islands by a job at the former Redfish Blufish restaurant.

The day she reported to work, sadly, was the day the restaurant’s owner Gaye Levine passed away.

Talmage started cooking regardless, backed by the restaurant’s investors, who eventually named the restaurant in her honor.

Chef Talmage’s following was immediate at her new enterprise. It wasn’t long before her fanship dictated a newer, bigger location.

The investors completely renovated and redesigned the restaurant on Periwinkle Way that was to become her new home, which opened in 2009 with a sophisticated, spacious dining room and a full liquor bar.

Since then, Talmage has been adjusting her staff and style to the new location.

It’s still a small restaurant, relative to other island eateries, with five kitchen staff, six to seven servers, and a bartender.

“It’s a small staff that I just adore,” she gushes.

As far as culinary style, the chef balks at putting a label to it.

In her fast-fire, brisk way, she talks it out in bursts: “It’s tough when people ask me to categorize my cooking. I don’t think I have a category or niche. I put interesting components on the plate that you wouldn’t think about putting together. Everything on the plate has a reason to be there – texture, color, salty, sweet. It really is a very composed plate.”

The menu changes “on a whim,” she added. Every couple of months she varies a handful of items as the season dictates. Last spring, for instance, she pulled braised short ribs in favor of duck breast. She also took grouper off the menu, refusing to sell it out of season because she doesn’t want to serve previously frozen grouper, and because she’s behind the trend for sustainable and local product whenever possible.

The grilled romaine salad never leaves the menu, thank the culinary gods!

“I also always do sweetbreads and pork belly in some incarnation. Yes, they’re both unusual for the island. I like to offer people something a little different.”

Signature to the restaurant? Talmage answers without hesitation: the fish stew.

“We took it off last year, and we got so many people calling to ask for it special, we just decided to put it back on.”

Her version of bouillabaisse, it explodes with the goodness of mahimahi or redfish, scallops, shrimp, clams, mussels, chorizo, fennel, and a lemony saffron cream accent.

Her current favorite dish to compose? Fettuccine and clams with fennel and Pernod.

She’s clearly in a fennel state-of-mind these days, but she also loves experimenting with xanthum gum — a gluten-free, natural thickener; and the sous vide method of vacuum-sealed cooking.

“It’s how I do the duck breast right now, it really seals in the flavor,” the chef said. “But I don’t put that on the menu, because a lot of people don’t understand yet what it is.”

The greatest influences on her cooking? Oddly enough, the combination of N’awlins and playing sports.

“There are still remnants of New Orleans cooking in my menu – the beignets, dirty rice, fried green tomatoes,” said Talmage. “I loved that it’s so steeped in its own culture. I haven’t found a city in the U.S. with so much inbred culture. It’s so much more than drinking on Bourbon Street; there’s so much more behind Mardi Gras.”

Understandable enough, but how does her background in soccer and diving figure in?

“On a busy night you get into a zone. You need the same mindset and discipline [as sports]; you’re constantly going, the adrenaline is flowing. I’m very high-energy, so it fits my personality.”

Since opening the new Sweet Melissa’s, the Talmage culinary family has grown to include Island Pizza in two locations.

Although Talmage keeps her fingers in the kitchens, the two new restaurants are a pet project of her husband, John, who is phasing his career from an economic development company CEO to a consultant.

The kids, Olivia now 11 and Benjamin 8, are also expressing interest in the food industry.

Olivia – after she completes her professional soccer career, of course  – would like to be a restaurant critic. (I suppose I should be fearing for my job?).

Benjamin will follow his stint as an NFL punter to become a cook, he has decided.

Mom encourages them to follow all their dreams, after college and traveling. “Because I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says.

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