Suffolk restaurateur takes honors in regional competition

Published 10:15 pm Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Steve Gellas, the chef and one of the owners of Primo 116 Bistro on West Washington Street, stirs a “Tuscan salsa” he created on Monday as a sauce for a new recipe that he’s been working on. Gellas recently won top honors for his creations during a regional chef’s contest.

Sixteen of Hampton Roads’ top chefs put their work to the test recently at The Founders Inn and Spa in Virginia Beach, and a Suffolk restaurateur came out on top.

Steve Gellas, who owns Primo 116 Bistro with his wife Margaret, won the honors for Best Dish in Hampton Roads and Chef’s Choice during the March of Dimes Signature Chefs Auction Oct. 16.

Gellas was chosen by a panel of food critics in a blind taste test for the Best Dish honor and by the other participating chefs for the Chef’s Choice honor.

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“It was very fulfilling, very gratifying,” Gellas said Monday as he sat at a table at Primo prior to a private party at the restaurant. “What was really, really satisfying was the other chefs voting for me.”

The winning dish was a traditional Tuscany concoction with a twist — braised pork cheeks with butternut squash risotto.

“I wasn’t sure it was going to work,” Gellas said. “I had never made that risotto, but I’ve made risotto a thousand times. I decided I was going to do risotto there, because I thought that would be neat, for people to see [it].”

In fact, those attending got an eyeful, as Gellas stirred a huge pot of the butternut squash risotto concoction. The other chefs competing in the event were laughing as they watched Gellas stir his pot for more than an hour, he said.

“Have you got enough rice?” they asked.

But then, Gellas said, last year’s winner stopped by the Primo’s booth and asked for a taste.

“’This is on time,’” Gellas remembers the other chef telling him. Soon, those attending the event were clamoring for seconds, and he knew he was onto something.

Braised pork cheeks with butternut squash risotto hardly qualifies as a simple dish, but Gellas contends that “straight-ahead cooking” is the basis of everything he does.

“Simple is best,” he said. “You can’t expound and tweak something unless you know what it’s supposed to be (in its basic form) first.”

Gellas, whose family influences are Greek and Italian, grew up in the restaurant business. His father, he said, made him promise never to follow him into that industry. It turned out to be a promise the son couldn’t keep.

His restaurant in Suffolk still draws on the old influences, including those of his wife, whose Italian mother taught Gellas to make some of the dishes he serves today. Some of the sauces he uses at Primo, for instance, go back three generations, and he takes pride in telling folks that the food there “remains true to the Italian table.”

For Gellas, the honors he won in the Signature Chefs contest have helped validate his position in the Hampton Roads restaurant business, especially since his downtown Suffolk location sometimes makes Primo seem like one of the area’s best-kept secrets.

“You do feel slighted sometimes, because people don’t want to come downtown,” he said, adding that it’s easy to feel “overlooked by the mainstream … restaurant world in Hampton Roads.”

But he and his wife were attracted to the opportunity that downtown Suffolk presented to them to own their own properties. Operating Primo on West Washington Street, the couple also owns the property where the Plaid Turnip now operates, in the space where they once ran Pisces Restaurant.

But Gellas still gets his kicks in the kitchen, developing new dishes and trying out fresh ideas. And the payoff comes in watching folks try those new creations.

“I love watching people eat,” he said.