Executive Chef and Restaurateur,
Al Coro • Discolo • Mel’s, New York City
Melissa Rodriguez is a veteran chef of the New York City restaurant scene. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America where she earned a degree in Culinary Arts, Melissa spent time cooking with Elaine Bell Catering and Oceana. In 2006, she was hired as a line cook at Daniel Boulud’s flagship Restaurant Daniel, where she quickly rose through the ranks to sous chef. A few years later, she ascended to the role of Executive Chef at Del Posto.
Melissa Rodriguez returned to the limelight after Del Posto closed due to the pandemic. She and her business partner Jeff Katz have transformed 85 Tenth Avenue into not one, but three new restaurants: Mel’s, an approachable but still ambitious spot for pizza and the like; as well as Al Coro and Discolo, a restaurant and bar combo that revive the space’s legacy of Italian fine dining and drinking — just a bit differently. The trio burned the sage, they sold off all the trappings and wiped the slate clean.
Rodriguez is not new here (and neither is Katz, the longtime general manager of Del Posto). She has technically been cooking at 85 Tenth Avenue since 2011, just after The New York Times gave Del Posto four stars; it was the paper’s first four-star Italian review since 1974. But that job was more the natural evolution of her experience as a chef than its start. Rodriguez graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park in 1999. Some of her first jobs — the ones that set a precedent — were in kitchens run by exacting chefs like Cornelius Gallagher at Oceana.
Melissa Rodriguez’s saga is very representative of how post Pandemic careers are all about seizing opportunity. With that, Total Food Service sought out Melissa to share her story.
What or who inspired you to become a chef?
I started cooking at a pretty young age, and it was more because I was a picky eater, and my mom made dinner every night, but very simply. It was very plain and structured. There was a protein, a salad, a vegetable, starch. Dinner time was the time that you spent talking about how your day was and whatnot. I grew up in Northern New Jersey and was often the kid who was left sitting at the table because I didn’t really like a lot of things. So, in any event, I started cooking.
You figured early on you would fend for yourself?
Well, a few tragic family things happened. My father passed away suddenly. My mom, had to work to support my sisters and I, so she would cook on Sunday and expect us to heat things up through the week because she was working really long hours. And when you’re an adolescent reheating something that your mom made you that you already didn’t want to eat wasn’t really on your agenda.
How did that turn into decision to pursue a culinary education?
My mom saw what I was doing, and she sent me to The Culinary Institute of America to their summer program for high school students. When I was 15, she sent me for a week, and I did this cooking program and on campus. When I came back, I found a job at a restaurant and that’s how it all began.
Walk us through your career path from there?
I got back from this program, and I was 15 and I wanted to get a job in a restaurant, but I had no skillset. I called every restaurant and offered to work for free just to learn and everyone said no except for one place. So, I would go there a few days a week after my paying after-school job when I could. I didn’t have any responsibility. It was more like a fly on the wall. If they told me to peel onions, I peeled onions. I made cookies, I did whatever. But I really liked the energy of a restaurant. Then after graduating high school, I went back to the CIA.
What was the experience like as a full-time culinary student? What did you take out from there that you’ve taken with you on your journey?
That you must have very solid basic techniques. I realized going on my externship at CIA that I really liked being in a restaurant more than a classroom. My attention span is limited, so I’d prefer to be working with my hands and not sitting down. Also, keep in mind that I was very young, and it was not as common as it is now to go to cooking school right out of high school. Everyone was much older than I was. I think the average age was 27 and I was 18. And the difference and wherewithal and maturity in between those ages is very great. So, it was a funny place for me to be because I was in this space where I didn’t really know anything and I didn’t really know who I was, but it was fun. I had a good time, and I learned a lot, and realized that I really liked restaurants.
After you graduated, talk a little bit about what the next steps were in your journey.
I continued working at the place where I’d done my externship in New York City called the Cub Room. It’s actually in the space where The Dutch is now. The chef was Henry Meer, and he had been Andre Soltner’s sous chef at Lutece for a long time.
I just really liked being in New York and working in a busy restaurant. But at some point, I decided that after years of taking the bus in from Brooklyn and going to a museum or a concert, I needed a big change. So, I moved to California. I lived in Sonoma and worked in catering because I didn’t want to be in the same place every day. I worked for a woman named Elaine Bell. She had a catering business which required kitchens to be built in the middle of fields and we brought stoves and gas tanks there. It was very physical and challenging, but it was super fun because it was different every time. This wasn’t hot box cooking. If you forgot something and you were on top of a mountain in Calistoga and you had no cell phone service, you had to figure it out. The parties were super high end in Napa and Sonoma Valley, so I really liked that. After a couple of years though, I decided that I didn’t want to cook like that anymore. I wanted to move back to New York and see how far I could go in fine dining.
What was it like coming back to New York?
I came back to the city, and I started working at Oceana with Cornelius Gallagher. At the time, it was a three-star New York Times restaurant. And the first year that the Michelin was here, we received one star. Cornelius was very intense and very ambitious, and it was a great start for me. I wanted to keep going in that trajectory. I spent two and a half years there and then I went on to work at Daniel. I thought I would only stay for like a year. I expected that it was going to be difficult, and I wouldn’t be able to handle the load. While it was challenging, I did really well there. After a year they made me a sous chef and I ended up staying for about five years.
Was Daniel Boulud a good teacher?
He was a great mentor who has become a great friend to me. You work really hard for him, but I always felt like I was part of a team. I was well cared for and taken care of. It’s a massive machine with many people who have been there for many, many years, and they all have so much to share and offer, and it was a really wonderful restaurant family for a while for me.
What came after Daniel?
I needed a break and I took a little time off and I was doing a little side job catering to make some ends meet. A friend of mine was the Chef de Cuisine under Mark Ladner at Del Posto, after they’d just gotten their four stars. My friend called me and said, “We can help each other. You are not working right now, and I need a sous chef that can handle the fish line for us.” I was honest, and said, “I don’t know anything about Italian food. This is a bad idea. I’m not going to do that.” They told me, “You’ve just spent five years with Daniel? You’ll be absolutely fine!”
So, I took the job and at the same time, I was also working on a restaurant project of my own that I ended up walking away from. When that happened, Mark Ladner asked, “Well, you’re going to stay, right?” So, I did, and I kept moving up and getting promoted. And then at some point, Mark told me he wanted to leave to do this pasta concept he was working on, and asked me to replace him. And that’s how I became the executive chef at Del Posto.
How did Mel’s come to be?
Totally by accident. We had taken over the lease at Del Posto and we’re doing construction. And during that time, the real estate company that owns the building asked us if we would want to do something in the space next door that was originally an oyster bar. It is a pretty narrow and small space with minimal storage. You actually had to walk out the front of the building through the main entrance to go downstairs to the basement, to the cage and the walk-in, it was a little difficult.
What we did was we added a private room that had belonged to the Del Posto’s space, that became Al Coro. We then connected the two restaurants in the back, so that we would share all of our storage and resources and that the smaller restaurant could be well supported. Jeff [Katz] and I both love pizza and we thought it would be super fun, and then we had the option of, “Well, do you want to have wood fire or do you want to have gas fire? Because you can’t have both!” So, I chose wood fire and ripped the band-aid off of cooking casual fare for the first time in years. I hadn’t worked in a casual restaurant in twenty years, and it was super fun and very outside of my comfort zone and where I’d been for a long time. But I’m glad we did it!!
What was it like putting your own name on a restaurant?
The truth is Mel’s became the name because we couldn’t agree on a name! It was actually me giving up. Because we had gone through so many names and nothing was sticking. And we had two other spaces to name. And our architect, the whole time had called the whole project Mel’s. So, they were like, “Why don’t you just call it Mel’s?” I insisted “No, I’m not going to name a restaurant after myself. That’s ridiculous!” Then my partner convinced me by telling me that Mel could be some old Sicilian dude smoking a cigarette in the back. So, the name Mel’s is just an accident.
I’m curious, the restaurant project that you didn’t do before Del Posto, what did you learn from that when you did this?
My God, so many things. I’m definitely still learning. What I learned is that when I was working on that restaurant project in 2011, I was pretty naive and was just getting to know how to walk through a contract and have a lawyer and all those things. So, I learned a lot, which put me in a good spot for a future.
Who is the target guest for the restaurants?
It’s a really interesting location that has continued to evolve. Pre-Pandemic, it was very far west with a limited amount of people living and working in 10th Avenue. That changed dramatically during the Pandemic. All these very large residential buildings went up as did the little island, City Winery, and now the James Beard Pier 57. All of a sudden, we’re not that far west anymore as like maybe we were 10 years ago. So, we get a lot of neighborhood residents, we get a lot of industry workers including Google’s offices right across the street.
What’s your approach to the customer experience and making great pizza?
I always wanted to think about it as like the restaurant I want to go to on my day off. So, what do I want out of it? I just wanted it to be lighthearted, easy, fun and delicious. Pizza is a little funny. You can make really good pizza and you can make really great pizza.
Given your background in building teams in high end dining, how have you changed your approach for casual?
I always look at all of my kitchens as collaborative places where we all work as a team and it’s not just only what I think. We all taste together, we all develop together, it makes it much more fruitful and fun when everyone’s on board.
And what’s on the menu that has become your signature?
We have a bunch of them. There’s a lot of things that have been on the menu since day one. One of them is a grilled gem lettuce salad that’s grilled and marinated with Burrata and a Calabrian chili vinaigrette. Another staple dish happened maybe a few months in, but it’s a bibb salad with pecorino and fennel and pistachio breadcrumbs. It’s simple, but it’s really yummy. We have this thing that we call the giant clam, and it’s essentially a stuffed clam, so it’s pretty big. But instead of getting a plate of stuffed clams with your friends, you get this one big one that’s spilling over with clams and shrimp and garlic, breadcrumbs, herbs. That’s become a big signature for us. So playful.
How do you keep the menu engaging and exciting for customers? Are you constantly changing? Are there seasonal additions?
We make seasonal adjustments over there. We try to keep things not the same, but of the same realm. Like I said, there’s a number of things that are on the menu that haven’t changed since day one because they’ve just been things that have been really well received and things that people come back for. But also, it’s important for us to be engaged and keep moving forward and also considering the seasons is a very important thing for me and my team.
One current example is that, starting in July through September, we kicked off our F.O.M.O. (Friends Of Mel’s Oven) Pizza Series with limited-edition pizzas created by chefs Daniel Boulud, Gabriel Kreuther, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Junghyun Park. It’s been a great experience and an honor getting to collaborate with these legendary chefs.
Everybody’s battling to find and retain topflight talent. What’s your approach to building your team?
My approach to building a team is understanding that you need to grow with them and that they’re not necessarily going to come to you with a skillset that you are going to want out of them. You need to have the wherewithal and the patience to understand that. You need to believe that people are very capable and that it’s on you to get them to a place that you need and that they need to be to move along in their career.
Considering the growth of the minimum wage and how that impacts a business, does that push the expectation level of what you need to get from people in any way?
I try not to let that change my expectations. What I expect is that you come with a great attitude and the willingness to learn and also understand that you will grow, and that you’re polite and are happy to work on a team with other people. If I can get that from someone, then that’s all I really need or want.
Where are we going as an industry, and does it frustrate you?
I think it’s interesting. I’m personally glad that I didn’t have to deal with the internet and social media as a young cook. You had to go to a bookstore to understand what was happening in other restaurants, especially high-end restaurants. You read Art Culinaire or you went to Kitchen Arts & Letters on your day off and soaked it all in. You actually had to work at going and finding new things. The only way that you knew what was happening in the restaurant that your friend was working at was because you talked to your friend, or because you walked to that restaurant and looked at the menu that was hanging outside. So it’s very different. I appreciate that everything is so accessible now, but I also appreciate that I didn’t have that for myself as a young cook.
While we are on the subject of books… You are participating in the upcoming Les Dames d’Escoffier New York cookbook?
Yes, I contributed a recipe for their upcoming cookbook coming out in September. It’s nice to be part of a group that supports and promotes other women in the industry. I try to participate when I can, and I try to support when I can.
By the way, is it good being married to another chef? Would you suggest it?
[Laughs] Yes, it’s been good for me. Garrett’s (McMahan) very supportive of me and vice versa. I met him at CIA, so I’ve known my husband since I’m 18.
And finally, is Mel’s a concept that could roll out into multiple units? What do you see?
Maybe, we’ll see. Our restaurant is still a baby, and everyone wants to grow and move forward, and so we’ll see what the future brings.
All Melissa Rodriguez photos courtesy of Mel’s NYC unless otherwise noted
After this story was originally written, news broke that Melissa Rodriguez and Jeff Katz had formed a new partnership with global hospitality and entertainment company Tao Group Hospitality for Al Coro, Mel’s and Discolo.
In addition to adding Tao Group Hospitality’s expertise to the group of restaurants at 85 Tenth Avenue, the new partnership will support and Rodriguez and Katz’s vision of reopening Al Coro as a new concept — a project they will begin early next year.
Tao Group Hospitality will welcome the trio of New York-based venues into their impressive catalog of restaurants, nightclubs, lounges, and daylife venues. The hospitality group operates over 80 branded locations in over 20 markets across four continents, including Michelin-rated Hakkasan.