Sanibel chef brings national spotlight to Southwest Florida restaurants
Melissa Donahue of Sanibel's Sweet Melissa's Cafe became the first Lee County chef to earn a James Beard Awards nomination. It only took 20 years of hard work.
Late on a Tuesday morning at the bar of Sweet Melissa’s Cafe, things are quiet.
There’s the occasional clang of pans from the kitchen. The shuffle of chairs as servers prep the dining room. And, backing it all, the constant endless ringing of the phone.
“It hasn’t stopped,” executive chef Melissa Donahue said, her eyes wide. “It’s always ringing pretty steadily, but now it’s seriously nonstop.”
Sanibel’s secret is out.
The Beard Awards are often called the Oscars of the restaurant world. Donahue is one of 20 nominees in the south region which extends from Arkansas to Puerto Rico. She will find out March 27 if she is among the five finalists, an honor no Southwest Florida chef has ever achieved.
“We’re so far away from where the action is. This isn’t New York or New Orleans — or even Miami,” said Jeanie Roland, chef-owner of The Perfect Caper in Punta Gorda and a seven-time James Beard Awards nominee, most recently in 2012.
“It’s always such an honor to see chefs from this region get the attention they deserve. For another female chef to be recognized, especially one who’s been doing this as long as she has, it’s so great to see that.”
Donahue’s decade with Sweet Melissa’s is the culmination of a career in some of the country’s highest-profile restaurants. But growing up she never imagined this would be her life.
Veering from the plan
In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia, Donahue set out to follow in the overachieving footsteps of her parents.
Executive chef Melissa Donahue of Sweet Melissa’s Cafe on Sanibel. (Photo: Ricardo Rolon/The News-Press USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA)
Her father graduated from the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Her mom earned a trio of degrees from Penn, including a PhD in nursing.
“I wanted to be a lawyer,” the 47-year-old Donahue said. “That was always the plan.”
She graduated with a degree in political science from Wagner College on Staten Island, New York in 1994. Her education gave her a taste of some of New York City’s best restaurants.
Donahue’s father worked in Manhattan at the time. The two would meet for lunch at Bobby Flay’s original Mesa Grill near Union Square Park. He took her to the iconic Grill Room at the Four Seasons and to Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Grill. When her mom joined them they headed up to Windows on the World on the 107th floor of the former North Tower of the World Trade Center.
“My parents were always big foodies,” Donahue said. “They liked to dine out, and with them both working we ate at restaurants a lot.”
That changed when Donahue graduated from Wagner and struck out on her own. She started working in government, earning $18,000 a year as an aid to a New York City council member.
The Grill Room was no longer an option, so Donahue taught herself to cook.
“My grandmother on my mom’s side was always the cook in the family,” she said. “She’s Southern. She lived in Clarksville, Tennessee outside of Nashville. I just remember her cooking all day and all night when we’d come visit. It always seemed like so much work.”
“I lucked out,” Donahue said. “I was able to parlay that into a job at Union Square.”
She started in the pantry and worked her way to the pasta station and hot appetizers. The job taught her work ethic and how to turn-and-burn in a big, fast-paced kitchen.
A few weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, while pregnant with her son, Donahue and her then-husband moved to New Orleans.
Their son was born in summer 2002. That fall Donahue took a job in the kitchen of the famed Commander’s Palace.
“That was really where I developed my palate,” she said. “It was a huge confidence thing. It showed me I belong here.”
Donahue worked through every station at Commander’s Palace, including saute, grill and desserts. In 2005, about a month before Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, Donahue and her family moved to Sanibel to be closer to her parents, to send her kids to The Sanibel School, and so Donahue could cook at what was then Red Fish Blue Fish.
The Sanibel move turned Donahue’s focus toward seafood, though it couldn’t erase her New Orleans ties. Big Easy flavors imbued Donahue’s work at Red Fish Blue Fish, and they are still a major influence on her menu at Sweet Melissa’s, which she opened with owner Gretchen Valade on Valentine’s Day 2009.
Customers can taste it in her beignets, her blackened redfish, her quail stuffed with dirty rice, her shrimp and grits infused with a simple, New Orleans-style “barbecue” sauce comprised of Worcestershire, fresh lemons and black pepper.
Donahue works to constantly update and freshen her menu, but her many loyal customers aren’t always amenable to change.
“The fish stew is the one thing that has been on there since the very beginning,” Donahue said with a smile and a sigh.
“We have tried, we have tried so hard to take it off but people were up in arms. We were forced to bring it back.”
Sweet Melissa’s knows its audience well. The Sanibel clientele trends a little older than, say, New Orleans. While the cafe has space for more than 100 seats, Donahue limits it to 74 to give customers more elbow room and a little privacy from their neighbors.
All of Sweet Melissa’s entrees are available in full or half portions, something Donahue said she is constantly thanked for.
In exchange for the island’s quiet, Donahue gets earlier nights — home by 9 or 10 p.m. instead of 2 or 3 a.m. — and a little more time with her family.
“It’s hard. It’s always hard trying to juggle. But I was able to be there most nights for the games and the weekend events,” she said.
“That’s really a big reason why we came here.”
Donahue first went through the James Beard Awards application process three years ago. She tried again last year. This third time proved to be the charm.
“It surprised me in some ways, because we’re in such a tiny and isolated place,” Sweet Melissa’s general manager of eight years Karen Schaffer said.
“But then again, this is Melissa. She’s amazing and talented and so great at what she does. Looking at it that way, I’m not surprised at all.”
Bringing the spotlight
To put Donahue’s James Beard Awards nomination into context, five of the chefs she’s up against are from New Orleans, including one who works for the same restaurant group behind Commander’s Palace. Four of the chefs are from Miami and the East Coast, including Brad Kilgore, a 2018 Beard Awards finalist, and the chef behind Miami’s high-profile Altar, Brava and Kaido restaurants.
South Fort Myers chef Harold Balink, who had the honor of cooking at the James Beard House in Manhattan in 2015, said it’s about time for the state’s Gulf Coast to get more recognition.
“I can think of four or five chefs here who are more than deserving,” said Balink, who’s known Donahue for the better part of 10 years.
“For Melissa to do it, the fact she’s brought the spotlight to this area, I don’t have the adjectives to describe how thrilled I am for her.”
Balink said the nomination is a reflection on Southwest Florida’s surging restaurant scene.
Chef Roland of The Perfect Caper, the area’s only other Beard Awards nominee, sees it as a springboard for Donahue. Since her nominations, Roland has gone on to multiple Food Network appearances, including a spot on “Iron Chef Gauntlet” last spring.
Roland was among the first people to call and congratulate Donahue when news of the nomination first broke.
“It was just to say hey, props to a fellow female chef, you know,” Roland said. “I just wanted her to know how happy I was for her.”
Back in the kitchen of Sweet Melissa’s, as the ringing phone faded behind the chop of knives and the whir of an ice cream machine, Donahue cubed croissants for her Key lime white chocolate bread pudding.
“I am also our pastry chef,” she said, laughing.
Her hopes for this nomination are a bit simpler.
“If anything comes of this, my biggest hope is that it allows us to bring in more help, to keep growing.
“That’s always been my mission: just keep getting better, any way we can.”