Chef Melissa Chmelar: City Mouse with a Country House

New York can feel like a small city, when you’ve lived here long enough.

Certain personal landmarks – a subway station bench, a street corner, a restaurant, even a stretch of sidewalk – can be landmines for a broken heart. The same spots can bring back floods of sweet nostalgia, a yearning for who you were or what you were doing there five, ten, fifteen or more years prior. And once you’ve mastered where to stand so that the train doors open directly to the stairwell you want to climb, or how to meander to a theatre on a route with the fewest tourists, or which hyped-up restaurant to forego for the neighborhood local making far better food, New York feels like one big neighborhood.

From Washington Heights to Brooklyn Heights, it’s all one big backyard.

Chef Melissa Chmelar is the chef and proprietor of one such neighborhood joint–Spoon Table & Bar–which opened recently in place of its smaller sibling, Spoon and Tbsp. She’s got a similar city-mouse-country-house vibe going on that brings me to and from NYC and my hometown in CT. And her food is the kind that is both indescribable and yet comfortingly familiar.

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Chef Melissa Chmelar: City Mouse, Country House

August, 2016

Many publications have credited the feel of your work as harkening back to your time spent with family in the country. But in what ways are you very much a New Yorker?

I am a total New Yorker. I feel like a weirdo anywhere else. I do spend a lot of time in the country–I spent weekends and summers up state, and we spend a lot of time out of town. But I am a complete New Yorker.

I’m so comfortable in the country, so I’m very familiar with agriculture and living of off the land. Both of my brothers are hunters and fishers–they bring me a lot to cook when we’re there, and there’s sort of a ready-set-cook nature about to. And right across from the farm is a field so beautiful that my husband and I got married there. It changes seasonally, so every moment in time it’s like a different place completely: corn, potatoes, garlic scapes. It’s a different field every day and season. It’s always felt special and I feel super close to it. That’s the country bit. I can’t live without that; it’s integral to who I am.

But I would first and foremost describe myself as a New Yorker. That’s why I have a place here–this is my spot. It’s how I feel at home and comfortable. And New Yorkers are the people who I want to feed. Being a New Yorker and being able to bring them a little of that is special.

How do those two very distinct environments come together here?

Right now, the door opens and we hear 33rd Street. It’s hot and loud and gross. But when you step in, it’s calm and pretty, and you can relax. This dining room is tranquil. It may have a little country vibe, but I would never describe it as a country kitchen. It’s maybe Scandinavian country feel, because I also have a very close connection to Europe since my mother’s English and my father’s Czech, and I went to cooking school in London. There are things on the menu that are very English, and all that influenced the design of the space, too. There’s a big painting from a family member in England of a barn in Norfolk, where my mom’s from. So it’s a mishmash of New York, update and Europe.

Where are the greatest challenges?

New York is tough, man, so as much as you’re trying to do things right, we ask people to be patient as we work out kinks with a new space and new equipment and a new menu and staff. I want everything to be perfect, so if I hear one tiny criticism I go crazy fixing it. New Yorkers are intense, so I feel like restaurants should get a little slack when things go wrong. We were packed and the AC went down, the Internet went down… you have to fix everything quietly and behind the scenes, and juggle the theatre of it. New York is one of the hardest places to do it, but I’ve never wanted to do it anywhere else. Because it’s so satisfying: if you can make New Yorkers happy, you can do it anywhere, because we’re not gonna settle. I’m the same way when I dine out: I’m super critical of service and food, in a “this could be solved easily, and they should know about that.” It’s tough because you want things to be perfect, and it’s not always going to be perfect because there is user error.

The country aspect of your childhood had you tapping maple trees, canning, pickling, etc. What was the biggest takeaway from studying formally at Le Cordon Bleu? Was there a culture shock, cooking wise?

Culinary school was so integral to me becoming who I am now, because it was a totally different experience from anything else I had done before it.

My mother is a totally intuitive cook, and so she taught me to be that kind of cook, where you open the fridge and take whatever’s in there and create a meal. School taught me the technical stuff that I would have never learned or bothered learning otherwise. If you don’t have that as your base, you’re flying blind. I don’t think it’s necessary to be a good cook, but it gives you a platform and all of the information to be able to say, “Oh, I can do this or that with this” or “I know how to fix this broken sauce.” It makes things easier. You can get there in the long run but this gives you the familiarity.

I don’t cook traditional French food, but I use everything I learned there. Most importantly, how to get things done in the kitchen and when they get done so that when you’re done there are no dirty dishes. When someone cooks in my house and there’s a full sink at the end it’s like, really? It’s really an art to create an entire dish or meal, and at the end it’s complete and done and at the end the kitchen is clean: it means you’re methodical, you’ve timed things out, and you know how things work together.

So I wouldn’t call it a culture shock as much as something I was hungry for. I’ve always been an OCD person; I think most people in the kitchen are because you kind of have to be. So to apply that to the creativity of cooking is paramount to running a business. It’s diffident than doing it a home. If you don’t have that piece, it’s going to fall apart. I was shocked because I’m not a rigid or strict person, but you have to be to a certain extent. Which was news to me – it’s not about drinking a glass of wine and listening to music while you cook.

Was there a particular part of being an “intuitive cook” that was harder to let go of than others?

I’m not a good rule follower–I can’t follow a recipe to save my life–so putting a recipe book for this restaurant was tricky, since I’m changing things all the time. I’m a creative person, so cooking the same thing twice is hard for me to do. I’m an emotional person, too, so depending on how I feel on a day I might want something spicier or saltier than it was the round before. Which I’m sure isn’t fun for my staff.

Is there something that feels uniquely different in your new space compared to the cooking you’ve been doing until now?

It’s more about the physicality of what’s happening now, having a full restaurant. We’re still doing catering and will never stop doing that, because why would we? But having the opportunity to serve things straight from the kitchen rather than catering photos shoots or things where the food arrives prepared is a totally different scenario. I couldn’t cook branzino and send it out on a job. To cook it a half an hour before, get it wrapped, have it sit in a van for half an hour, and then god knows when they’re actually going to eat it… that has changed more so than technical skills. That’s what I’m most exited about.

When I started photo shoot catering in the early 90s, it was when there was a lot of money, and so people would have a chef come in and cook. It was super fun; you could do super creative stuff, and people spent money. Now it’s all drop off. There’s never a chef on site any more for day-to-day catering. I was feeling cornered by that, because I couldn’t do the food I want to do – how much do you really want to cook something that’s going to sit for hours? It doesn’t have the same satisfaction of literally standing over every dish walking out of the kitchen I have touched, and it’s getting to the table thirty seconds later. That’s where it’s grown the most – with what I want to serve, rather than what I have to serve. That’s what’s changed us, in where and how we’re serving food now.

Any difference in what you can technically execute, either because your technique is stronger or because of just the equipment you have?

In terms of technical abilities, obviously spending more time in the kitchen and getting more time with food is easier, but I’ve always been very adventurous. When I came out of school I probably had more technical abilities than I have now, because I paid attention to technique more.

The super exciting thing right now is having a salamander; that’s been on the top of my list for ten years and it’s changed my life. So it’s more about equipment and the style of service that’s change. It’s exciting to me, because now I can be excited about it. Even with Spoon downtown, I felt more proud of the food on the weekend: During the weekdays we do what we can, and the takeaway dishes were delicious, and I knew that they were delicious when we made them, but then they’re sitting in a tin for two hours before being eaten.

Spoon Table & Bar is a whole different ballgame—it’s like moving into a fancy apartment from a tenement. It’s really exciting on that level, because I can spread my wings and do what I really want to do. Especially with the bar: we had a full liquor license before but we never had a cocktail program. Now we have wine on tap! Choosing those wines was really exciting. I’m a big wine drinker and my dad is from a wine drinking region in Czech Republic, so we spend a lot of time drinking wine. The Gruner is from a place near my dad’s house, so that’s all exciting a new.

How does all of this come together on a plate? What dishes are you really psyched to share and see people order?

 Certainly for breakfast we have the Bodega Sammy, which is a highbrow take on the deli sandwich. Sullivan Street makes a roll or bouton like the Pizza Bianca, and it’s ridiculous, and we make a bacon, egg, and cheese out of it. But we do in the salamander, so the cheese melts into the egg and bacon. It’s totally insane. The cheese is crisp from the outside. And an add-on is housemade pimento cheese; if you put that on the salamander, it’s like both a heart attack and the best thing in the universe. That’s super fun for breakfast.

We use the salamander in a million different ways to crisp things on top, because I’m all about a crispy top. The pork chop is a sleeper hit; people are obsessed with it. It’s fun, and not something I would be able to do previously. Anyone can cook a pork chop, though.

What do you want your place in the NYC restaurant scene to be?

What I really want to be is the neighborhood’s regular joint, much like we were on 20th street. There’s nothing like having regulars. I love them. We want this to be a nice place to come, and to serve the neighborhood. We have an office above us, and I want to be their daily lunch spot, and their daily happy hour place. We have amazing daily oysters– which I’ve never been able to do before, so that tasting was so fun.

So basically, the way I want to function is that I want people to be able to come here seven days a week and be happy. Brunch, dinner, comfortable, casual, a good neighborhood joint. Service them up.

In New York there are both fancy places and chains. But I feel like we fit in terms of home cooking, good quality, we’re not outrageously expensive, and you get interesting stuff. We fit in a good way. This neighborhood is changing so radically. When I was growing up this was rug shops and photo labs. Now, it’s crazy. It’s become so much more residential. I never would have thought it.

We get our ground beef from a friend who raises cattle in Connecticut; I get a kick out of working with people who I know and love and make great stuff. Our greens come from Mountain Delve in upstate New York from a husband and wife I could hang out with all day. The more I can do that kind of thing is really important to me. I’m trying to get my brother to get his commercial fishing license since he comes back with fish everyday – how awesome would that be to get fish from my brother?! I call him and I can hear that he’s out on the water, with his cutting board and knife making his sashimi. Once we get our footing, we want to do more fun stuff like a head-to-tail night, get Stumptown in for coffee tastings, get the farmer in for a talk and an all-vegetable menu. To bring the producers in so people see how important it is. It’s always been hugely important to me, with that field right by our house, to teach people, “Yeah, that grows on a bush!”

You just opened a few weeks ago. How have things been running?

 People are happy, which is thrilling. We had a full dining room at lunch and all the food was coming out in ten minutes. It was like, YAY!

We’re super excited. And we want everyone to come and be as excited as we are. We’re enjoying it, and want to see people come and enjoy it with us. This is a passion. Nowadays it’s hard to find places not backed by corporate money. I have no idea why I’m so bullheaded and determined, but here you go. Hopefully, that continues to happen.

 

 

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