Welcome to the September edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Kelly Nelson from Fore Street. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on instagram, so stay tuned.
She is unmistakable, eccentric, and nothing short of fabulous. Her hair shifts from one vibrant shade to the next (it’s currently flamingo pink) and cephalopod tattoos wrap her arms and legs. On Instagram she’s @geeksquid, and if you follow her you are well aware of her fondness for hairless rats. After contributing to the Portland food scene in various ways for over a decade, she now revels in the role of wine coordinator at Fore Street. She is, of course, the one and only Kelly Nelson.
Kelly’s wine expertise has been years in the making. In fact, there was a time when she disliked red wine altogether. Long before she began curating thoughtful and intentional wine lists, Kelly attended College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. At the ripe age of nineteen, she became the kitchen manager at Reel Pizza, but her personality screamed front-of-the-house. Since then, she’s held nearly every front-facing restaurant role outside of the kitchen, from host to general manager.
In 2008, Kelly left Bar Harbor for Portland where she was persistent in her pursuit of working at Local 188. “Local 188 was a hotbed of creativity. It was one of those places that everyone wanted to be,” Kelly explains. She dropped her resume off multiple times, but it wasn’t until she bumped into chef-owner Jay Villani at Whole Foods that she finally got her foot in the door. She told him how much she wanted to work there and he responded with, “Yeah yeah kid, just show up at 4:30 pm.”
Kelly was a loyal employee of Local 188 and its sister restaurant, Sonny’s (now closed) for six years. She rose through the ranks, eventually running events and building wine lists. She continued to expand her wine knowledge at the beloved Italian restaurant, Piccolo (now closed), for more than five years. Then, in January 2019, Kelly became general manager and wine coordinator at Evo Kitchen + Bar where she also planned wildly popular monthly wine dinners. While most of her expertise is self-taught, she has a Level 2 Award in Wines from Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and is also a member of Maine Sommeliers Society, a blind tasting group run by Erica Archer of Wine Wise.
Since April 2021, Kelly has been breathing new life into Fore Street’s wine list. Vintage wines and Napa Cabernet Sauvignon are still plentiful but now you can also try something a little off the beaten path. Read on to learn her favorite wines on Fore Street’s expansive list, her go-to Portland restaurants, and where she ate her most memorable meal nearly ten years ago.
AA: How was Local 188 influential to your career in wine?
KN: When I started at Local 188, I knew nothing about wine. I didn’t even like red wine then. I drank Pinot Grigio because I knew how to pronounce it. I learned about wines from Gary Boycott, who is now the operations manager. He had an incredible way of translating what was washing over his tongue when he tasted wine. Without him, I wouldn’t be as passionate about wine as I am now or have had that kind of introduction that made this path possible.
AA: How do you pair wine with food?
KN: There are two ways of pairing wine with food; one is with a wine that cuts through the richness of the dish. It has that palette cleansing experience. The other is with a wine that becomes one with the dish. Each bite of the food and sip of the wine becomes a full-circle experience. You’re not quite sure where one begins and the other ends.
AA: What is your favorite winery or wine region?
KN: Chateau Musar in Lebanon is my favorite winery. It’s one of the most unique wineries in the world. It’s all French varietals grown in the Bekaa Valley. Every sip is layered with spice, acidity, fruit, and tannins. It fascinates me that it comes from such a war-torn country and a place of strife and pain, but also so much beauty. It’s all the things that I love in life trapped inside a bottle. Evo really gave me the opportunity to highlight that winery.
AA: How does your wine list at Fore Street differ from the one you created at Evo Kitchen + Bar?
KN: At Evo, I wanted to create an esoteric wine list that connected wine with food in the way that it is meant to be. Their food is more delicate and vegetarian-based. Because of that, you don’t need tannic, aggressive wines. You need wines that are more quaffable in nature. At Fore Street, I wanted to blow a little dust off of the wine list. I’ve been designing the wine list to make it all-inclusive. I have everything from the classics to a Gaglioppo from Calabria, which pairs well with grilled meats. Of course, that’s what Fore Street is known for. You need wines that balance all that smoke and char.
AA: What are some of your favorite white wines by the bottle at Fore Street?
KN: The Château Simone Palette Blanc (2014) is a beautiful expression of a varietal that you don’t hear about often. It has the right amount of oxidative notes and this really interesting full-body palette without being too cloying. It goes beautifully with our turnspit roasted chicken, which is next level. I also love the Dona Maria Amantis Reserva Viognier (2016) from Portugal. Viognier can be a very temperamental variety. With the right amount of care, it can either be very bright and light or rich and voluptuous. This one has nice spice and caramelized notes. It tastes like it’s from Portugal.
AA: What is one of your favorite red wines by the bottle at Fore Street?
KN: One bottle that I added to our list is the 2013 Movia from Slovenia. I actually priced it a little lower because I want to make it more accessible to the general public. It’s sultry with dark fruit, like blueberry and bramble. It has a lot of depth, but also a burst of acidity that opens up your palette. That’s what sets this one apart from pinot noir.
AA: Where do you go to eat in Portland?
KN: One of my favorite restaurants in town, and has been since they opened in 2011, is Schulte and Herr. Brian and Steffi are some of the most kind, generous, humble, hospitality-driven people that I know. Their restaurant has that hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop kind of feeling. It’s one of the only places in town that is BYOB. The potato pancakes are to die for and hopefully they will bring back the Sunday Brunch. For the Sunday roast, they do this beautiful big pan of roast beef or pork with gravy and potato dumplings. I’ve never been anywhere that’s as consistent as they are.
AA: Where else do you dine often in Portland?
KN: Izakaya Minato. I’m a huge fan of Thomas Cooke’s food and Elaine Alden does an incredible job with the wine and sake list. I love their warm cozy atmosphere and fine detailed food that’s also so comforting. Again, I’ve never had a bad meal there. My favorite dish is the age ochazuke. I usually get at least two servings.
AA: Where have you had an incredibly memorable meal?
KN: At Hugo’s on January 4th, 2012. It was my birthday. I still have the menu from that night on my refrigerator. Nicholas, my partner, planned this incredible meal with the then chef-owner, Rob Evans. He is wildly talented. He made twenty courses and it ran the gamut. The Fantasy of Lamb was one of my favorite dishes. It looked like a Salvador Dalí landscape of food. The whole meal was memorable beyond imagination.
AA: Are there any newer restaurants that you’re loving right now?
KN: Leeward is so good. Raquel Stevens is amazing. She put together a wine list that I’m obsessed with. It’s so unique that I get overwhelmed by how awesome it is. I just asked her to pick a wine for me. The chef, Jake Stevens, made a Nero pasta with squid that was awesome and a stuffed squash blossom with maple cream, mushrooms, and fried lemon. It was so interesting and really well done.
AA: We know you’re a big fan of Ruski’s. What is it that you love about the West End institution?
KN: I love Ruski’s for many reasons. The main one is comfort. Ruski’s is that old comfy robe that you’ve had for years that shows its age in the best ways — frayed and stained it keeps the importance of nostalgia at the forefront of your mind. I’ve literally walked from my house in my pj’s and robe to enjoy a beverage with some of my favorites both behind and at the bar.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article: Local 188, Evo, Izakaya Minato, Leeward, and Ruski’s are open with indoor and outdoor seating. Schulte & Herr is open for takeout. Hugo’s has been closed during the pandemic. Fore Street is open for indoor seating—reservations are strongly recommended but if you don’t get one join the line that forms starting at around 4:30 to grab a seat at the bar or one of the seats held back for walk-ins each night.
Previous editions of My Kitchen Their Table have featured Courtney Loreg, Chad Conley Atsuko Fujimoto, Matt Ginn, Jordan Rubin, Cara Stadler, Thomas Takashi Cooke, Ilma Lopez, Bowman Brown, and Brian Catapang.