Chef Brendan Pelley is back in Lowell, the city where he was born, working as culinary director at Coffee and Cotton, Mill No. 5’s eclectic cafe. It’s a departure from the frenetic world of the Boston kitchens where he learned his tricks, but a welcome change for the father of two who, when not cooking, can be found foraging in the woods for ingredients.
At 39 and on the job since March, Pelley has created a new, expanded menu for the cafe, crafted from his love of good food prepared with fresh ingredients in a simple way. And he’s thrilled about his new seven-minute commute from his home in Chelmsford.
“I enjoy coming here on a daily basis,” Pelley says one recent morning at the cafe, a warm and funky space buzzing with calm energy. “There’s a real sense of community. The fact that I’m cooking for people I know and can connect with … feels like I have a little bit more sense of purpose. I’m also cooking way more causal food, which is kind of the food I like to eat and my family likes to eat.”
His menu features breakfast, lunch and dinner offerings such as avocado toast, homemade falafel, spinach pie, grain bowls, fresh sandwiches, soup and baked goods. Beverages include coffee, tea, kombucha, beer, wine and mimosas.
“Everything that we source here is local, sustainable and organic as much as possible,” he says, noting that he’s worked hard to train staff on preparation and presentation. “We make everything in house as much as possible. It’s very well thought out and delicious.”
Mill No. 5, the brainchild of developer and owner Jim Lichoulas, is at the center of a sort of renaissance in Lowell, and Pelley loves being a part of the growth. The building was constructed in 1873 as a textile mill, and Lichoulas has turned the fourth floor — and the soon-to-open fifth floor — into a bustling center of commerce, including a Sunday farmers market, a theater, and unique shops and eateries.
“Brendan is a talent, has great character, leadership skills and is a perfect fit for our burgeoning community,” says Lichoulas, whose Coco Luna company also owns Dows Soda Fountain, Red & White Market and The Luna Theater in addition to Coffee and Cotton (named in a nod to the history of the mill and its main offering, as well as to a lyric in one of his favorite Jack White songs, “Lazaretto”). “Brendan is bringing his talent and vision to the table, and we are excited to have him as part of the Mill No. 5 community and adding to the growing Lowell food scene.”
Located in Lowell’s Hamilton Canal District, the mill building is adjacent to the city’s under-construction courthouse complex and near the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Lowell Community Health Center, allowing for plenty of foot traffic.
Pelley was born just a few miles away at Lowell General Hospital. Raised in Chelmsford, he now lives there with his wife, who is a registered nurse at Boston Children’s Hospital, and their two sons, 2 and 9. His extended family still resides in the area, and his grandfather was showman Charles Pelley, a radio personality and a big band leader in Lowell.
Local restaurant stints for Pelley in his teens included the Town Meeting Restaurant, Friendly’s and Cafe Aroma, all in Chelmsford. After high school, he enrolled at UMass Lowell to study fine arts and “fell in love” with working at restaurants. By age 21, he was employed by a full-service fine dining restaurant, the now-closed Fortunato’s Italian Restaurant in Lowell. Clio, Doretta Taverna, Summer Winter, and Pelekasis (Pelley’s own pop-up restaurant named after his ancestors) are also noted restaurants he’s worked at.
Though Pelley admits he enjoys food that’s loaded with cheese and butter as much as the next person, he also believes in the “everything in moderation” approach when it comes to food and dining. “For the most part, I eat healthy, clean food,” he says. Pelley loves to cook seasonally, and often finds inspiration during his foraging walks in area state forests.
“I’m into foraging all sorts of stuff,” he says, listing mushrooms, fiddleheads, ramps, spruce tips, dandelion greens, wood sorrels, wild staghorn sumac, and berries among his favorites.
He says he lets wild food “inform” his menu, explaining that he gets a sense of what is growing naturally in season and then works with food purveyors to add those items to his dishes. For example, he may see chanterelle mushrooms growing next to wild blueberries next to swimming rainbow trout, and then create a dish from that inspiration. “I think about food a lot,” he says.
One major benefit of working at Mill No. 5 is the weekly farmers market, where Pelley has forged relationships with growers.
“I have real relationships with farmers, and I see them every week, so they get to inform my menu changes and let me know what their picking schedule is for each vegetable. I really have more a grasp of what’s happening on farms than I did before,” he says.
Pelley’s appearances on the television shows Hell’s Kitchen and Beat Bobby Flay took him a long way from the Merrimack Valley, and the exposure in the cooking world helped him get to where he is today, he says.
“I wanted to open more doors in my career and I wanted to make a name for myself,” he says, noting that the reality television business is fun but challenging, and that actual work in the kitchen is a necessity to thrive.
“It’s been a game changer since Brendan’s been around,” says Addie Farrick, Coffee and Cotton’s cafe manager, who helps Pelley oversee a staff of more than 20. “We needed someone with his level of experience, and we work really well together, so it’s a good team. He took it to the next level.”
Pelley is looking forward to Lowell’s continued growth, and hopes other restaurateurs recognize the area as a great place to set up shop. He’s also proud to have landed in his old stomping grounds.
“I want people to think of this place as more than just a great place for coffee, which it is,” Pelley says. “But now it has really awesome food that is locally sourced and is cooked with great care and technique, and is hopefully super delicious.”
Mill No. 5