The Smile can be easy to miss. It’s a cozy 1830’s Federal-style townhouse in NoHo one level down from street level. With its unassuming exterior and an interior made up of wooden ceilings, brick walls, and dim lighting it has become quite the local hotspot. Zoe Kravitz, Cara Delevingne, Kendall and Gigi– basically all of New York’s It crowd– are fans.
Just behind it are tiny garden apartments where the executive chef, Melia Marden’s parents (the renowned artists Brice and Helen Marden) first lived together in the late 60’s.
Melia was raised in the art world— she grew up royalty in the NY art scene— and it seemed to be the path she was destined for. By three she had done her first around-the-world trip, her summers were spent at the family’s vacation home in Greece, and she was well-versed in all things New York. As she grew up around art she just figured it was what she was going to end up doing. International art; domestic art; it was her niche— she even went to Harvard and majored in Art History. Her sister opened a gallery; and Melia got a job interning at various magazines… but then suddenly, she realized that it just wasn’t for her.
“After school, I didn’t want to do any of the things I thought I was gearing towards. I didn’t want it as a career. I didn’t want to work for a museum or a gallery. I didn’t want to be in an office. The reality of stuff I thought I wanted to do with my life was different from what I had originally thought,” she explains.
So she switched it all up. She enrolled at Manhattan’s French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) and upon graduating took a job working for a female chef at Maya’s in St. Barts, popularly known as the best restaurant in the Caribbean. Once she came back to New York, she started her own catering company and through a job reconnected with the restaurateur Carlos Quirarte. He, along with Matt Kliegman— also an accomplished restaurateur— were opening a restaurant called The Smile and inquired if Melia would be interested in being their head chef. When she met them at the soon-to-be-location and realized it was the very place her parents used to live, she knew it was fate.
Although she lacked the kind of background usually needed for a position of that caliber, she knew she could handle it. The Smile officially opened in March of 2009, and Melia, who was in her early 30’s was the head of the kitchen. “There was definitely tension with me running a kitchen with a bunch of prep guys. Not only was I a woman coming in, but I didn’t really have much experience, and I was young. It was hard to get people to respect me and take me seriously,” she explains.
She realized that she was going to have to work for that reverence and she was game. “I didn’t really deserve their respect in the beginning because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had never had that experience of working in a big scary kitchen where people are screaming and throwing pots. Here the kitchen is small, so it’s really hard to shout at someone and tell them to do something differently when you’re going to be standing next to them for the next 10 hours.”
Seven years in, she’s now a partner and has developed her own vibe in the kitchen— one where she’s able to manage without being aggressive, and one where she feels she’s earned the esteem she’s given.
The Smile has since expanded to include three more locations throughout Manhattan including Smile To Go, The Smile at Milk Studios, and The Smile Newsstand. Melia is proud when she states that all of their head chefs are women at their different locations. “It wasn’t by design, it’s just how it happened. I think as it becomes more normal, that old stereotype [of chefs only being men] isn’t as true anymore.”
She’s paving the way for women in the kitchen, and has made a name for herself in the cooking world. She’s known for her Mediterranean-inspired dishes peppered with Moroccan and Greek elements. She’s written a cookbook called Modern Mediterranean and enjoys spending nights at home with her family developing new recipes where she can see every step of the process and then adapt them for the restaurant. Every day she enjoys what she does and is confident her after college switch-up was one that led her in the right direction.
Because as it turned out, food, is her art.
Lindsay DeLong is the Managing Editor of The Fullest. She’ll take the food-kind-of-art over the museum-kind-of-art any day… especially if it involves Miss Marden’s food. Find Lindsay at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media via @lindizzaster.