“I began cooking because I was a fussy eater. At some point a friend suggested I try working in a restaurant. I was immediately drawn to the energy of a restaurant and kitchen. I loved that everyone was someone different, from a different place, with different experiences. It just felt like a place that was interesting, challenging, and comfortable for me.”
Melissa Rodriguez’s organic introduction to the culinary world led her on an exciting journey: after earning her Culinary Arts Degree from the Culinary Institute of America, she gained experience in a variety of roles in different branches of the industry before perusing the path of fine dining, which has culminated in her at the helm of Michelin-starred Del Posto in New York City.
“I went to cooking school straight out of high school. Honestly, I thought I would work for a few years and then pursue another degree, perhaps in nutrition. But I found that I really enjoyed the restaurant kitchen. I found I was methodical under pressure and not panicked. I had my first restaurant job in NYC at eighteen, I didn’t have any skill set or any kind of confidence within my skill set. I then moved to Sonoma California to do catering. Catering really taught me how to adjust. Building a kitchen in the middle of a field or cooking in a different space every day was challenging and fun. It really allowed me to gain enough confidence in my cooking skills to want to do more. So, I moved back to NYC and pursued fine dining.”
Within the fine-dining realm, Rodriguez has been mentored by some of the industry’s best, including Daniel Boulud of revered Restaurant Daniel. She spent five years learning from Boulud, and worked her way from line cook to Sous Chef in the two-Michelin-starred restaurant. It was in this fast-paced, fine-dining environment where she learnt the importance of a collaborative, conscientious and holistic approach to haute cuisine.
“At Del Posto we have a lot of things to consider. We are a large Italian fine dining restaurant in Manhattan. We offer a five course and eight course tasting menu as well as a la carte options. Conceptually, we cook regionally inspired Italian food, we consider twenty regions of Italy and our twenty-first region, New York City. Our approach to food is collaborative. We work as a team both front and back of the house testing out not only its execution, but a dish’s story, how we serve it and how it feels when you sit down to eat it.”
At the heart of each of these dishes is their taste, and this is what guides the dish’s journey from conception to execution explains Melissa: “My culinary philosophy is that it must be delicious. When we are doing dish development that is always our focus. It’s great if its charming or whimsical or has a sense of luxury or magic, but if it’s not delicious then what’s the point?”
“I’m not sure if I can pinpoint the inspiration of my style of cooking. I’ve always found so much inspiration and encouragement from my peers and mentors. I often find inspiration from conversations I have with my cooks and colleagues about the market or what’s in the walk-in. From a region, a great meal shared, a horrible meal shared. It’s hard to really pinpoint one moment because for me it’s always changing. I think what my inspiration has evolved into is a conversation of engagement. I treat my kitchen like a collaboration. We talk about dish development and taste and adjust together.”
“I [also] find the farmer’s market a great sense of inspiration as well as travel and reading. I wish I had more time to travel but when I don’t, I find reading not only cookbooks, but books in general, helpful.”
Continuous moments of inspiration paired with ever-changing seasons leads to constant menu evolution at Del Posto. Only cooking with ingredients that are at their prime also ensures that dishes, whether new favorites or older classics, always have maximum flavor.
“We change the menu pretty often. There are definitely dishes on the menu that change a little less often. However, a good portion of the menu changes both seasonally and throughout the season. So, we look at seasonal changes first. We look at what is available to us both in this country and Italy. I like to cook very seasonally and use the ingredients that are at their best in the season. For example, I will never use peas, or tomatoes unless they are great. I would prefer not to use them if it’s too early or too late. We at the same time look at regional dishes. We look for great products and try to use them within all of those contexts.”
“We source our products mostly locally and then a bit from Italy. We love tomatoes from Eckerton Hill, chicories from Campo Rosso, chickens from Violet Hill Farms and our Berkshire pigs from Newman Farms. Most of the produce comes from upstate New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.”
Some of Melissa’s most-loved ingredients form the backbone of her favorite dishes, such as the Maiale con Mostarda di Pesche, which is a harmonious combination of heritage pork with roasted peach and chanterelles. The Vitello Tonnato, a chilled veal and tuna starter with a tangy basil and lemon vinaigrette; the Busiati, a corkscrew shaped pasta with swordfish and eggplant; and the Corona, which features crown-shaped pasta filled with Toma cheese and black truffle butter, are all part of the Chef’s list of go-to dishes.
The food is not the only indulgent aspect of Del Posto, however. The space holds its own against the sublime food, and so does the service. This, paired with a determined culinary team, is what has made Del Posto so fruitful – a success which is underpinned by rave reviews from the New York Times, a Relais and Chateaux distinction and a Five Diamond Award from AAA.
“Del Posto is a large, luxurious, and impressive space. We try to make the space feel elegant, warm and a place you want to be for a few hours. The space opens to high ceilings and a grand marble staircase. The piano player helps keep the room warm and buzzy. Del Posto is a place we want you to feel cared for whether celebrating an anniversary or popping into the bar for a bowl of pasta or a tasting menu.”
“I think one of the key elements that has led to the success of Del Posto is our team. We have a big and amazing team. There are people who have been here since day one and there are people who have been here for less time. However, nothing in the restaurant grows or goes anywhere without everyone’s participation, care, support, and spirit. We work collaboratively and closely including the back and front of the house. There is very little we do within the restaurant without consulting with the team, down to tasting and developing dishes and how we serve those dishes. Everyone’s input and participation is what makes Del Posto great and keeps us always moving forward.”
“I also feel that not only does everyone participate in the process, but we also work incredibly well as a team. It might sound a little cliché or cheesy but there are a lot of us and not as much you or them. We work together really well and sometimes people from completely different job roles come up with solutions and ideas for roles very different than their own.”
Not only does the fine-dining scene itself present challenges, but being in New York City, a foodie hotspot in its own right, makes the challenges that much more daunting. With the number of restaurants in the city increasing exponentially, competition is it at its peak concedes Melissa.
“Staying on top of the dining pulse is challenging. I think just like Del Posto, the fine dining scene [in New York] is ever growing and changing. Most of the new high-level fine-dining spots have been smaller counter service restaurants – Daniel, EMP, Per Se, Le Bernardin – they’ve been at the top of the chain for at least a decade and a half. It will be interesting to see how things evolve for the next decade.”
“Del Posto stands out because we do our best to go above and beyond guests’ expectations. Weather it’s a gluten free tasting menu or a birthday celebration, we are always pushing ahead to bring the best to the plate and the diner. We focus on starting with delicious food before it’s interesting, not that food can’t be interesting. But we certainly start with delicious and then move from there. We also offer choice, where many fine-dining restaurants are strictly tasting menu, we give our guests the option of choosing from the breadth of the entire menu. Trying to serve and cook the way we do can be a challenge, but it’s certainly not a differentiator.”
Melissa does see fine dining continuing further on its path toward a more curated and experience-based affair in the future, but this is not necessarily her dream for the industry, she admits: “Romantically, I wish fine dining would move towards cooking and technique rather than modern and surreal. I love mixing technique with modern capability, I believe it’s a fine balance to combine the two. I wish that fine dining would be more about learning how to cook and what that feels like and how that looks versus put this in a bag, and cook to this temperature, reheat.”
Much like the rest of the world, Rodriguez expects New York to soon follow suit in letting vegetables take center stage on the plate. For the Chef, vegetable-focused cuisine is an exciting notion: “When I think about technique and getting the most out of what we offer, vegetables offer a limitless toolbox of flavors, textures and combinations. From my perspective Italian cuisine celebrates vegetables in the best way so I’m feeling good about this right now.”
As for Del Posto’s future, it seems New York City will, luckily, still be graced with the restaurant’s insatiable Italian fare for a few more years to come: “We are actively thinking of what Del Posto’s future will look like and without giving away too much before we’re ready I can say this. We have a long lease in our space, so assuming we keep doing things well and people enjoy our offering, we’ll be here for a while. In NYC having a restaurant stay open for thirteen years is a feat, getting to thirty years is a real rarity. Hopefully we can make that happen and do it by continuing to evolve, but not forget about pushing our offering forward.”
This editorial first appeared in FOUR’s 05.19 Edition
Find out more about Melissa and Del Posto by visiting their website, Instagram profile or Facebook page.
Images © Natalie Black