Vows: They Have No Reservations (About Each Other)
Ms. Perello, who was born in New Jersey and grew up in Houston, knew from a young age that she wanted to be a chef, and she expressed an interest in culinary school as early as junior high. “I remember thinking, ‘You’re 14 years old. What if you want to be a nuclear physicist?’ But look how it worked out,” said her mother, Janice Perello.
Ms. Perello graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, after which she worked with the chef Michael Mina at his restaurant, Aqua, and completed a fellowship at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone in St. Helena, Calif.
She was quickly recognized for her kitchen skills and serious work ethic, as well as her calm presence amid an aggressive, often-male kitchen culture. “I met Melissa in the kitchen at CIA Greystone,” said Rob Lam, Ms. Perello’s friend and roommate in St. Helena. “She comes in, this cute little blondie, and she is the hardest cook there.”
Mr. Wright took more time deciding on a career. He was born in Santa Rosa, Calif., then a small agricultural town, and grew up on three acres there. His mother was a waitress, and his father was a carpenter. After high school, Mr. Wright attended Santa Rosa Junior College before moving to Los Angeles, where he audited various classes at the University of California, Los Angeles, while working off and on in the fine-dining world.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “But I was always drawn to restaurants.”
He worked for the chef Guy Fieri. But after Mr. Wright’s father died in 1996, he took some time off, with part of it spent traveling for three and a half months through France, Spain, Italy, Hungary and more. “It was my first European trip,” he said. “It made me realize that I had a real passion for food and wine.”
Upon returning to the United States, Mr. Wright headed to San Francisco, where he was later hired as the assistant general manager of Absinthe, a French brasserie. The restaurant served food until 1 a.m., which made it a popular destination for people in the restaurant industry.
By then, it was Ms. Perello’s turn to take a break. She had taken on the executive chef position at Fifth Floor, an upscale hotel restaurant. Despite recognition and a significant pay raise, she was unhappy. “I was really burned out,” she said. “I needed to pause and figure out what I wanted to do with my life.”
She traveled around New Zealand with friends, to Europe with her mother, and spent time at home with her family. Soon, she realized that she wanted to open her own restaurant. “I began thinking of a different kind of restaurant — something small, a neighborhood spot,” she said “I was dreaming up the recipe for Frances.”
Frances, a pocket-size restaurant in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, named after Ms. Perello’s maternal grandmother, opened in December 2009. It soon caught the eye of Bon Appétit and Esquire magazines, and the James Beard Foundation. Mr. Wright, then the general manager of Coi, a French-California restaurant, had the opening on his radar. Much of his staff had left Coi to go work for Ms. Perello.
“I remember thinking, ‘That’s funny — I used to have a torch for this chef and she just stole half my staff!’ Jokingly, of course.”
Mr. Wright was on the brink of another reset himself. His serious girlfriend at the time was diagnosed with breast cancer, leading him to quit his job at Coi to help her through her recovery. “It’s a process that can be challenging for any relationship, and it just wasn’t working out,” he said. “She wanted to leave San Francisco, and I wanted to stay. It was then that I heard about the open general manager position at Frances.”
Ms. Perello had recently gone through a string of breakups, on top of coping with the grueling process of opening her restaurant. Most of these ex-boyfriends had been chefs and, as Mr. Lam, the former roommate, said, may have been threatened by her success.
Mr. Wright, despite his own breakup, said he immediately felt an attraction to Ms. Perello when he interviewed for the general manager job. “But here it is: She’s basically my boss, and it’s a tricky situation,” he said.
The two quickly developed a friendship based on a shared passion for the outdoors and bands like Fleet Foxes and the National. Mr. Wright appreciated Ms. Perello’s straightforward, no-nonsense manner and sense of humor.
They also had similar work ethics. Mr. Wright would often come into the restaurant on his day off, where he would run into a surprised and pleased Ms. Perello. One night, the two went out to dinner at Locanda, a Roman-style trattoria. It was there that, for Ms. Perello, things took a turn. “I was definitely attracted to him at that point,” she said.
Mr. Wright wasn’t entirely sure of Ms. Perello’s feelings. “I was fairly certain that the feeling I was having was mutual,” he said. “But Melissa is very good at holding her cards close to the vest.”
It took another Italian dinner for the truth to come out. While dining at Cotogna, Mr. Wright worked up the courage to share his feelings. “I think I like you,” he told her, “a lot.”
“I definitely feel the same way,” she said.
Their feelings were clear, but their workplace strategy was not, so they kept their relationship a secret at first, even though the two moved in together. “We worried that it would feel inappropriate that we were basically running this restaurant together, and dating,” Ms. Perello said.
As news of the relationship began to reach the team at Frances, most responded with happy, if cautious, congratulations.
“When Melissa told me, I was happy but a little nervous. I thought, ‘All right, I really hope this works out because otherwise you’ll have a broken heart and no manager,’ ” said Sarah Tateishi, a close friend of the couple.
Mr. Wright was struck by the seamless nature of their relationship, and he began to realize that Ms. Perello was the woman he wanted to marry. He planned to propose on their vacation to Italy in October 2014 — the first long trip they would take as a couple.
On one of the last days of their trip, as they were walking down a winding path from the American Academy in Rome to the Vatican, Mr. Wright dropped to his knee and proposed. Ms. Perello, completely surprised, accepted.
The two returned home to celebrate — and to immediately open Ms. Perello’s second restaurant, Octavia. “I had forgotten the trauma of opening Frances enough to be willing to do it all over again,” she said. “Wedding planning was going to have to wait.” Through it all, Mr. Wright remained a steady support and a force. “Often, we’d be working 17-, 18-hour days, and we’d get pretty slap-happy,” said Jennifer Jackson, Octavia’s sous chef. “It was three women, teasing him and ganging up on him, and he took it! He was so quick to laugh, to joke with us. And he cared as much about the restaurant as Melissa did.”
After Octavia opened in April 2015, it was time to take a breather and plan a wedding.
On Sept. 5, the couple wed before 120 family members and friends on a bluff at Cuffey’s Cove in Elk, Calif. With views of the rugged Northern California coast behind them and the couple’s dog, Frankie, at their feet, Ms. Perello pledged, “May my heart be your shelter and my arms be your home.”
“I love you, not for what you are, but what I am when I am with you,” Mr. Wright said.
The ceremony was performed by Tony Liang, a friend and Universal Life minister. The crowd, many of them staff and regulars of Ms. Perello’s restaurants, erupted into cheers as Ms. Perello, bouquet aloft, called out, “Let’s go eat some awesome food!”
The reception centered on a multicourse, family-style meal in a candlelit barn. Produce was grown specifically for the event by Erin Cochran of Crow and Oak Farm. The dinner was planned and prepared by six chefs from Frances and Octavia, with dishes including a grill-smoked potato salad and whole legs of lamb cooked over fire.
As cakes were served and an impromptu dance party was getting underway, a beaming Ms. Perello called her chefs into the room to thank them with a standing ovation. Mr. Wright, dapper in a sleek blue suit, had his arm around her while smiling at their extended restaurant family.
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