Melody Kettle: Lawyer-Mom-Foodie-Blogger and Now Festival Impresario

Melody Kettle, who lives in Montclair, has something in common with Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Chez Panisse, the French Laundry and even Georges Auguste Escoffier, "the king of chefs and the chef of kings." Each has been inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame.

Never heard of it? is a website that says its "mission is to present a single, unified Hall of Fame to encompass ALL things culinary."

It is unabashedly a popularity contest. "We put all individuals and companies, no matter how large or how small, on a level playing field. You start with…zero points and depending on how much popular support you receive…you mov[e] towards induction…That is the democratic way made possible with the power of of the internet."

Kettle’s food news website, Hot From the Kettle, which she launched in 2011, was inducted last year. OK, we just wanted to get your attention with that. But Kettle has done a lot in her 33 years—and her latest project is pretty exciting.

She is founder and executive director of the Montclair Food & Wine Festival, which makes its debut Saturday and Sunday, June 1 and 2, at the Montclair Woman’s Club of Upper Montclair.

With over 90 eateries in its 6.3 square miles—including a core of highly-rated restaurants—Montclair is one of the state’s premier dining destinations. Kettle had covered other food festivals in New Jersey, and about two years ago she asked herself, “Why don’t we have one here?”

“All the talent was here," she says, "but it was like a puzzle with a bunch of moving pieces.” Challenges included finding a venue, recruiting chefs, deciding whether to rent or buy dishes and flatware. (She bought. "Now we’re equipped like a small catering company!" she says with a laugh.)

A biggie was figuring out when to hold the festival. Kettle originally aimed for July at the Montclair Art Museum.

"Logistically and financially, the Woman’s Club proved to be a better decision," she says. "Then we learned that the Woman’s Club was not available in July. Ultimately, Gary Fisch [of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace] advised that July was probably not good because too many people leave town.

“After two years of feeling like I was building something out of Legos," she says, "it’s finally coming together."

On Saturday evening, June 1st, the festivities begin with the walk-around Grand Tasting ($95), with offerings from local favorites such as Samba Montclair, The Pie Store, Brick Lane, Next Door, Le Salbuen and Fin, which will present an eight-foot-long raw bar.

Gary’s Wine & Marketplace (Bernardsville, Madison, Wayne) will pour wines, spirits and craft beers.

Sunday’s sit-down Wine Pairing Gala Dinner ($165) will bring together a tour de force of kitchen talent. Chefs Mitchell Altholz of Highlawn Pavilion and The Manor (W. Orange); Zod Arifai of Blu, Next Door and Daryl (the last in New Brunswick); Michael Carrino of Pig & Prince; Ryan DePersio of Fascino, Bar Cara (Bloomfield) and NICO (NJPAC, Newark); Ariane Duarte of CulinAriane; and Francesco Palmieri of The Orange Squirrel (Bloomfield) will create a five-course meal to remember.

"All the chefs got highly creative," Kettle says, "but I am intrigued by Francesco Palmieri’s Oyster-Oyster course for Sunday, which features a warm, pickled, oyster mushroom with duck confit and a chilled raw oyster with green apple fennel mignonette."

At the Saturday Tasting, she says, "Chris Siversen of Maritime Parc in Jersey City will do a scallop ceviche with avocado pudding and bacon salsa. Le Salbuen will serve braised duck with Parisian carrots, onions and tomato on a Balthazar croissant, and Bryan Gregg of the brand new Escape in Montclair will do strawberry gazpacho and smoked ham with lavender and corn crumble."

The sit-down Gala on Sunday will include a Mocktail Bar provided by Whole Foods Montclair, and wine pairings from Amanti Vino artisanal wine shop. Proprietor Sharon Sevrens will talk about each of the wines she selected as they are served.

In a fab final flourish, called Bean to Bean, Jodie Dawson from the new Java Love Coffee Roasters and The Chocolate Path’s Susan Fine will pair a trio of coffees from three different countries with specialty chocolates from those countries.

"We had to rent 75 large French presses, three for each of the 25 tables," Kettle says. "That was the biggest logistical challenge, figuring out how to serve each coffee so they would be at the right temperature. Jodie is very exacting about that—the right serving temperature, the right extraction temperature and duration. We did it because we want to make it something special."

Bread for the evening will be provided by Rachel Crampsey of Montclair Bread Company and dipping olive oils by Steve Lehrhoff of Olive That! And More.

Proceeds from the non-profit Festival will help establish a scholarship for a local student interested in pursuing culinary studies who exhibits academic merit, community involvement and financial need. MFWF will also donate a portion of proceeds to the St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital Center for Feeding and Swallowing, and to Partners for Health Foundation.

Kettle has come a long way from her South Hackensack childhood.

"I suppose I always had an affinity for food and was always very comfortable in the kitchen," she says. "If my grandmother was in the kitchen, so was I. She called me her shadow. If she was making chicken cutlets, I would bread them. If it was stuffed shells, I would mix the ricotta and stuff the shells. If it was challah, I would braid it. For sauce I would chop the garlic.

"I was essentially my grandmother’s sous chef. The kitchen, for me, was the place to be. it was warm, it smelled great and I learned."

Kettle studied law at Rutgers and married John Kettle, one of her law professors, in 2004, the same year she graduated. When she passed the bar exam in 2005 she was pregnant with their daughter, Alexandra.

"When Alexandra was 15 months old," she says, "we had our son, Sean, so I was a full-time, full-on Mommy, and I loved it. I read Russian lit constantly—in English, Anna Karenina is my favorite—went for walks through Montclair with my big, double red stroller, drank many, many lattes, and baked lots of bread.

"At some point, I began writing letters to the editor of the Montclair Times about things like the uneven sidewalks, a major disturbance for me pushing the stroller.

"Eventually I reached out to Liz George at Baristanet about possibly writing for them, and she gave me a chance. At first it wasn’t clear I would be writing food, but I did a few small food pieces early on.

"Then I made this How to Make Pizza Dough video with my kids, from my kitchen. The video stuck, and I began food writing and doing video journalism exclusively."

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