Kelly Nelson manages the front of the house at Piccolo in Portland, Maine. She is pictured here with a Corpse Reviver II.
How did you end up with that drink in particular?
I have a soft spot for absinthe. My love for it started back when I saw a bunch of movies that had referred to it. When the ban on absinthe was finally lifted in the United States back in 2007 or 2008 I was working at Local 188 and we had a celebration that Winter. Since then I have been hooked.
I remember back when it was not readily available in the US, it seemed to have a bit of a mystique. Did it feel similarly mystical or mysterious to you?
Absolutely. I imagine that green fairy, that mythical creature that would whisper in the artist's ear after they had been drinking absinthe for long enough, triggering in them a bout of creativity or inspiring them to create a masterpiece. For me, it feels like a blanket is warming my brain. It is one of the most delightful sensations that I have ever experienced while drinking alcohol.
Can you talk a bit about the relationship between a guest and someone who works in the front of the house?
Each service is a performance and I look forward to that. It's an opportunity to express yourself and to intermingle that expression with an interest in food and drink. It can be mundane, but it can also be quite exciting if you have the right attitude. I have always seen it as a performance as I used to dance and act and my personality is distinct and strong. I found that over the years, I have come to be able to read what the customer wants. You gauge what is pleasurable for the diner and you can then provide whatever service you think would be best for them. Sometimes that means leaving them alone entirely. You give them their food, make sure everything is perfect, and you are a ghost. To the other extreme, you become part of the experience by performing and engaging them in discussion of food and drink. It becomes a full circle of experience between the human interaction and the pleasures of well-paired food and alcohol.
Unless I am making this up — and if I am making this up, I am definitely really weird…
But I think we once had a similar conversation in which you had made a parallel between your role in hospitality and that of a dominatrix. Something like in your position, sometimes you are able to exert playful dominance.
Absolutely. I do remember that! I think you can be the ghost server, or you can be the server that basically tells the guest exactly what they want. You are the dominatrix as opposed to the ghost-like ninja. In a lot of fine dining, people in my position don't exert a lot of personality because the experience is all about simply making sure that the food appears on your table. As I said, I prefer to gauge what the guest is looking for and then provide accordingly. More often than not, if the guest responds well to my personality, they just want for me to be the dominatrix of the evening... when it comes to serving them. They want me to tell them exactly what they want, and give them the permission that allows them to enjoy it on their own. [Laughs]
Is there anything else that you'd like to add?
A true appreciation for food and drink is present in this town and I think we have a lot of phenomenal characters within a very small space. I am just really happy to be a part of it.
NOTE: This interview originally ran in the Summer of 2014.