Melissa J. Rodriguez succeeded Mark Ladner as the Executive Chef of New York's landmark Italian restaurant Del Posto. She sat down with MUNCHIES to talk about her career thus far, what it's like to be a woman in the kitchen (spoiler: she can't wait to not have to answer that question), and what it's like to run a kitchen that large.
I started cooking for a few reasons. Partly because I was a really picky eater, but also—it's a little bit morbid, but it's the truth—my father had died, and my mother had to go back to work. My older sister was away at college, and at home, it was just me and my little sister. My mom would leave at 6:30 in the morning every day and she would get home from her job in the city at 8:30 every night. She would ask, "What did you guys eat?" And I would be like, "Well, I ate microwaved popcorn, obviously, and my little sister ate Tostitos and melted mozzarella in the microwave." My mom would get really upset. So I started cooking because I wanted her not to be upset when she got home. And also it was like, "Oh, I made you something!" I would read my mom's cookbooks. I made some disgusting things and maybe some not-so-disgusting things.
That experience kind of rolled into getting a job—I went through the Yellow Pages, called every restaurant in driving distance of where I grew up, and explained that I wanted to learn more about cooking. I asked if I could come work in their restaurants for free. Everyone said no, except one place. I would go there two nights a week and peel onions, peel carrots. I was kind of like a fly on the wall, seeing what was going on and trying to understand how a restaurant ran. It was interesting, fun. I don't even know how I did it, now that I think about it. I also had a paying job after school and I played soccer. I would go there from like 7 o'clock to around 11 o'clock at night, twice a week, and on Saturdays. Then I decided I would go to culinary school—but first, I did a summer program to see if it was something I wanted to do. I really liked the restaurant energy—everyone you worked with so different, interesting, intriguing.
I hate when people ask me about being a woman in a fine dining kitchen. When are we going to stop having to answer that question?
I don't come from an Italian background—cooking or ethnically. When I came to Del Posto I didn't know much about Italian food, other than I liked to eat it on my day off. I had been working at Daniel for five years—and when you work in a French restaurant all you want is to eat something that's not butter and foie gras and all those things. So when I came to Del Posto I felt very much like a fish out of water, which was why I liked it. I came here not knowing a lot but willing to learn as much as I could. I did a lot of reading, research, and travel to kind of make up for not having that background. It was very difficult for me for a long time. I didn't feel comfortable or confident about cooking Italian food.
I came from a militant, regimented French cooking background, where thinking outside the box was very difficult. But that's kind of what I learned from Mark Ladner. When you work for someone like Daniel Boulud, he knows exactly what he wants, how he wants it, and he's happy to tell you a thousand times over. And that's awesome, that's great—especially if you're unsure. But with Ladner—he was the exact opposite. I had to pull things out of him. Learning to work with him and learning a whole new cuisine went hand in hand. Learning is a constant, daily thing. You have to always be working at something and try to inform yourself as much as possible.
The restaurant scene in New York is moving away from fine dining, but if no one embraces it, we lose something valuable.
It was intimidating taking over the Del Posto kitchen from Chef Ladner. I think being really honest about how intimidating it was to myself and the people around me has been part of the process. I learned about Italian food through his eyes. So being the person who replaces him? I was like, 'Fuck, I can't. How am I going to do that?' I just decided to be very honest and vulnerable about how I was feeling. I never thought, oh, I have to fill his shoes. Because that's impossible. There are so many things about Italian food that we all know because of him. So, yeah, it was difficult. It was a huge brain fuck really.
I hate when people ask me about being a woman in a fine dining kitchen. When are we going to stop having to answer that question? I hate to say it, but I have never really felt discriminated against. I think that I decided when I first started working in fine dining that I needed to have a really thick skin, I needed to work really hard at it, I needed to check my sex at the door, and I had to work as hard if not harder than whoever was standing next to me. And that's just always been my m.o. as far as how I behave in a restaurant. So it's difficult for me to say it's hard to be a woman—I mean, it's hard to be anyone. You really have to be focused and have goals in a fine dining situation no matter who you are. I don't know that being a woman is the worst thing in the world—I think it's actually good. We balance things out.
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Maintaining quality in a restaurant the size of Del Posto is a challenge. I have a gigantic kitchen staff. We're open for lunch and dinner, so there are 12 services a week, and our kitchen is like 10,000 square feet. It's not like I can have my hands in every single thing, in every single moment, every single day—it's physically impossible. I have a really amazing sous chef team. Every station has a sous chef because of the vast size—that's how we manage it. To be honest, I never thought I'd be in New York City and having all this space would be an issue—but it is. It's laughable. You have to teach a chef how to move and maneuver in my kitchen; you're asking them to figure it out in half a city block. It's hard. You have to think of all the negative space all the time.
The restaurant scene in New York is moving away from fine dining, but if no one embraces it, we lose something valuable. Not everything needs to be your corner Chinese that you order takeout from. Not everything needs to be Del Posto either. There needs to be a good balance—it's important.