Melia Marden is nine months pregnant when we meet her at her East Village apartment to pickle cherries and enjoy a delicious salad over conversations about honey, travel, and collections. She is exhibiting the “glow” that mothers-to-be often do, and is surprisingly spry given she is due in less than a month. Melia is the head chef at popular New York restaurant and café, The Smile, which caters to the city’s most stylish and creative patrons. Melia is responsible for the wholesome Mediterranean-inspired menu, which puts a twist on traditional “comfort food” resulting in swoon-worthy dishes like Moroccan Meatballs, minted sugar snap peas, and melted date and red onion-braised brisket just to name a few.
Melia did not however start her professional career in food. She took a job at a magazine where she was often tasked to do research for stories. One day, she was asked to research people working in the food industry. This was the day a she had a “light bulb” moment, and realized she was not meant to be in an office and made the decision to make a move and enroll in culinary school. “I was reading all about these food people and I felt like I was working in an office and it was stifling and depressing. I wanted to be more hands on, more physical. It’s not that I wanted to be a food personality or mogul, I just wanted to make things. I wanted to try something that was more interactive.” Melia explains.
The move into the culinary realm ended up making a lot of sense. Food had always played a big role in Melia’s life. Her mother, who she often sites as one of her greatest inspirations when it comes to cooking, taught Melia many of the techniques and general approach she uses and references in her cooking today. “Food played a big role. My mom is a really good cook and is really into food and is really into travel. We always had really interesting food influences. She cooked a lot of Thai food, Indian food and of course Mediterranean food. There was always an emphasis on fresh food and spices…” Melia recalls. One travel tradition in particular shaped Melia’s understanding of cuisine and shaped the way in which Melia would design the menu for The Smile. “We did this thing that really inspired the way I cook now. We went to Greece every summer to an island called Hydra, which is about 2 hours from Athens. It’s more of a rocky landscape, not a white sand beach people envision when they think of Greece- a little more rustic. My parents have been going since the 70’s. We would rent a fishing boat for the day with a captain. We would go out and cook a big picnic. Everyone would bring something and we would all eat it on the boat. That kind of cooking was a huge influence. It was a huge social thing you are cooking stuff that can sit out and last. It’s all family style and it’s all from the markets in Greece.”
I wanted to be more hands on, more physical… I just wanted to make things
The Smile’s menu clearly illustrates Marden’s re-creating of taste memories from places she’s been and dishes she’s loved. She continues to build on her knowledge of different countries and their specific cuisines and recently did a trip with her husband Frankie in which she added to her already expansive flavor palette. “For food inspiration, travel is great. Last summer we did this amazing trip (me and husband). We drove through Corsica and Sardinia. I have wanted to do it forever. I had this idea that there was this kind of Mediterranean food I had never tried. Corsica is Mediterranean French food. The honey is extremely specific there because of the wild shrub plants, the cured meat was the best I had ever had… and then Sardinia is like that, but more Italian. There was really good wine as well!”
In addition to constantly collecting knowledge on ingredients and cuisine, Melia and her husband are collectors of things, things of all categories. When you walk into their apartment, you are walking into an extremely curated work of art. There are knick-knacks covering wall-to-wall spaces, there are sculptures, racks of comic books, old storefront signs, books, paintings, framed photos, pin collections and more. “We have so many little collections. We collect aesthetically…Giraffes, fake food, lobsters… We have all these mini collections. We have been collecting more lobster stuff recently. In my mind I will have a giant lobster party at one point and I will be really prepared.” Melia laughs. “I collect restaurant ware like old plates. All our plates and champagne glasses are from old restaurants. We have a lot of dollhouse food. We have a bunch of mini liquor bottles. We collect “fancy men” and “fancy women”. Fancy Men figurines in top hats…the collection of mini champagne bottles goes with the fancy women.” She points to a shelf behind her displaying a scene just as she describes.
Melia has created a colorful and flavorful world in her East Village home for her and her husband and is now excited to share it with her son. She has had time to think about the food traditions she would like to pass along. “I definitely want to have my kid try tons of different kinds of foods. When my sister and me were growing up we helped a lot in the kitchen, I am excited to do the same with my own son. There will be lots of cooking. I want him to learn that it’s not insurmountable; it’s fun to eat and eat healthily as well.”
THE FOOD LIFE Q&A
Executive Chef The Smile, Smile To Go, The Smile at Milk Studios
Last Thing You Ate
Oatmeal with Greek yogurt & honey
Tastiest Thing you Have Ever Made
Roast chicken with lots of fresh rosemary and thyme
Soundtrack in your Kitchen
My husband used to DJ a lot so he creates amazing playlists for me – my favorite is a collection of unknown 80s new wave songs
Favorite Food City
Paris – I love how everyone takes meals incredibly seriously there
I always have _________ in My Kitchen
Several kinds of onions
What is your Kitchen Uniform
At work I wear black Jcrew jeans, nikes, and a black chef coat I bought at a uniform store in Paris. At home same thing minus the chef coat add a vintage apron.
Weirdest/most adventurous thing you have ever eaten
I ate whale in Iceland and it was extremely creepy – the texture of steak with an oily fishy lingering aftertaste
If you had to be the spokesperson for a food or beverage what would it be
Cadbury’s milk chocolate
Drink of choice (what's your poison?)
very dry rosé champagne
Are there any family recipes or food traditions that have been handed down to you
I’ve spent most of my food career recapturing my mom’s recipes that I grew up on – Moroccan chicken with lemon and olives, zucchini simmered in tomatoes and bay leaf, currently I’m trying to master her chicken soup with rice noodles and water chestnuts
If it's true 'you are what you eat' - what are you
60 % olive oil, 30% onions 10% miscellaneous other ingredients
What is the "recipe" for success according to you
keep doing what you’re doing and always be open to learning
(as in before I die?) perfectly cooked strip steak & red wine
What's Your Food Philosophy
Try the simplest version of a recipe first and add on until it’s as delicious as possible
What's Your Comfort Food
Penne arrabiata, milk chocolate
Favorite Part of Your Job
The best part of cooking is watching customers enjoy the food and hopefully have a slightly better day because they had a good meal.
Favorite Thing you Collect
Vintage restaurant ware and hotel plates and platters. I love the old graphic design and they’re built to be durable so I don’t have to be precious about using them.
Attiki Greek honey
Favorite Thing about Being a New Mom
Hanging out with this little person and getting to know him more and more every day.