lower east side
Pastry chef Melanie Moss has done what so many New Yorkers strive for: She has created something truly original. Inspired by her grandma, Melanie runs her own business selling unique, beautiful jeweled cakes and truffles that taste as good as they look.
You are a born and raised New Yorker?
I grew up in the suburbs on Long Island—hence the accent. I went to Northwestern University just outside of Chicago and also studied in Paris for a year. But for most of my life I’ve lived in New York. I just love it.
So you must have been surrounded by amazing food from a young age! Do you remember when you fell in love with cooking?
My grandma was a really big part of fostering my love for food. She was from Vienna and moved to America when she was really young. I’m the youngest of three sisters, and my grandma and I used to spend a lot of time together in the kitchen baking old family recipes. Very simple stuff. Although she’d be horrified by what I’m doing now.
She was very old school. She was always like, "I never want you to work, so marry a rich man." [Laughs]
That's super old school!
Actually she’d probably be really proud, but she would be horrified by the state of my hands.
She was such a big influence on me, and because of her I grew up baking. She was the most elegant person—she had this amazing repertoire and entertained all the time. My mom entertains all the time, as well. My whole family is obsessed with food, but I was definitely always the baker and doing desserts.
So this has always been what you wanted to do?
No, it wasn't. In my family, and in a lot of families I grew up around, everyone became a doctor, or a teacher, or a lawyer, or someone who worked in an office. I was a really a good student so I went away to college. My family had expectations for me that didn't involve food, but it was always in the back of my mind.
I did a double major in English Lit and French at Northwestern University, and that’s what sent me to study in Paris for a year. When I was there, I was able to cook undercover. I was always doing something food-related on the side.
When I graduated Northwestern, though, I ended up in book publishing, which I did for two years. I thought I was going to be doing that for the rest of my life ... I was going to work in this cubicle. I started as an intern at a publishing company and they hired me as soon as I graduated. It was an interesting time. I graduated college in 2008 and the economy collapsed. I was lucky in that regard, but I just wasn’t cut out for the corporate world. I didn’t know how to play the game there.
How long did you last in publishing?
I was there for two years, from age 23 to 25. But while I was there, I started a private chef company called La Petite Chef. I've always had a very creative, independent, entrepreneurial spirit. Running my own business is a good fit for me, and this was my first time doing that. It was before I even went to cooking school.
I did have experience because I had been cooking and baking most of my life, and when I was studying in Paris I got a lot of practice. I started developing menus, started a blog and reached out to a couple of concierge services. My first job was cooking for a marriage proposal. This guy rented out a penthouse and I cooked dinner for him and his girlfriend, and he proposed to her afterwards.
Did she say ‘yes’?
Otherwise that would have been super awkward.
Running this little business made me realize how much I wanted to work in food. I did that part time for about a year while I was still in publishing. I enrolled in a career change program at the Institute of Culinary Education on the weekends. Once I knew cooking school was the right path, I quit my publishing job. I wanted to be fully immersed in the industry.
My first cooking internship was at Saveur magazine for two months, and then I did a second internship for Pat LaFrieda Meats. When I finished cooking school, I started working at Babbo in the West Village.
How long were you at cooking school?
Nine months. Cooking school is its own little bubble. I definitely recommend it for people, but it was a shock at first. It was my first time in a stainless steel kitchen setup with chefs trying to scare you. [Laughs] But it's nothing like working in a restaurant, so it's a good in-between step.
How did you get your first job out of cooking school?
I had an interesting path to Babbo. I was having trouble in cooking school with meat fabrication and butchering. I got the idea to look up famous butchers and see if I could help them and in turn learn from them. I wrote to the butcher at Pat LaFrieda and he actually wrote back. That’s how I ended up interning there.
When I graduated, he suggested I work at Babbo and gave me the number for the head chef there. I called him up and he said, "I don't have time for you!" and hung up. I went down to the restaurant and he was like, "What are you doing here? We told you not to come in." [Laughs] I told him I would do any job in the kitchen if they had any openings. He said, “No.” And so I left.
Once I started walking down the street, another chef ran after me yelling, "Wait wait wait! One of the cooks is going to Mexico to visit his family over the summer so there is an internship open.”
So I started there as a pastry temp during the day, and they ended up hiring me. I ended up working at all the stations and that’s what really solidified my love of baking. I started working savory, I worked salad, the garde manger station, and the grill station, and then went back to pastry. I love to cook, but professionally I really prefer baking.
So Babbo was your first job at a restaurant? What was that like?
Horrifying. Like in a “going home and crying everyday” way. It was very grim for a while. Everything in my life was easy up until that point. [Laughs] I just realized how unprepared I was. Cooking schools do a good job but nothing can prepare you for working in a kitchen.
What made it so challenging?
I don’t think I’ve ever used my brain as much as when I started working at Babbo. For that reason it was also very exciting. You’re constantly figuring out how to be more efficient, how to work smarter, how to help the person next to you. You’re part of a team and you have to put out the best product every second, despite the obstacles.
It's grueling physical work but it's amazing how your body and brain just morphs after a while. You are creating the same things over and over and over….
Eventually I grew to love it. The pastry chef at Babbo was an amazing, award-winning chef. She actually passed away a few months ago. Her name was Gina DePalma. She really took me under her wing but she definitely abused me at the beginning. I know now that was because she believed in me. We became really close and I was her right hand. I’m very thankful that she was so hard on me because without that I wouldn’t be the chef I am today.
Where did you go after that?
I love change, so after two years at Babbo I wanted to work in a restaurant that was the polar opposite. I applied for a job as a pastry cook at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown. They called me up a second after I applied! I was so excited to move up there. It's really beautiful. I worked there for two years.
Two years seems to be the magic amount of time for you.
I’ve never actually thought of it, but that’s true! It was crazy at Blue Hill. I worked every day of the week. It’s an amazing place, and I got to do so many things. I started as the pastry line cook for dinner, then I became the pastry chef for their cafe. I cooked all their breads and pastries.
Eventually I became the stand-in pastry chef while they were in between people. That’s the job I had always wanted, and they eventually gave it to me. I did recipe testing and dessert development, as well as some special projects. It was a crazy work schedule, though, and towards the end I realized it wasn’t sustainable. If I was going to work that hard and not see my husband, family or friends, then I should be doing my own thing.
How did you eventually make that change?
I knew I wanted to get back to the city. It was hard for me to live in the suburbs in my mid-20s. [Laughs]
The Blue Hill family is really amazing, and everybody knows each other and hangs out, but it’s a bubble from the rest of the world. I knew I wanted to get to New York, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Restaurants weren’t my future; the lifestyle wasn’t for me.
I wasn’t experienced enough at that point to teach, and I’d already done the private chef thing, which ultimately wasn’t for me. I started brainstorming, and was also baking a lot. Friends and family started to buy my cakes and baked goods. I started playing around with new recipes, and that’s where the idea for Mini Melanie started. I had no business background but I knew I had sources I could rely on and I did a lot of research. I talked to family members, listened to business podcasts and eventually got a business plan together. That was two years ago now.
How did you initially get the word out there?
I sent a lot of samples to people. I’m the sales force, so it was a lot of pitching to people. One job sailed into the next, and I recently teamed up with some caterers and they really helped me get the word out.
I did a lot of office catering at first because that was where my main network was. A lot of my friends work in offices, so I would do office parties and birthdays or corporate gifts. That’s really how the jeweled truffles became popular; they are a great gift.
Now we have a bigger team and we have a bigger menu. We do wedding cakes, and these mini cakes which are awesome for gifts and events.
I'm mostly in charge of recipe testing, developing new custom projects and collaborations. All the cake production is under my net, and then my kitchen director, Alex, oversees the chocolate production. We also have a full-time kitchen intern. When we get really busy we’ll bring in additional cooks—Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day this year were insane. Wedding season is really busy for us, as well.
Social media has been fantastic in terms of getting the word out. People love to Instagram our cakes.
You also currently work in the kitchen of Hill & Dale in the Lower East Side, so do you just work at Mini Melanie during the days?
Yes, Hill & Dale put an ad out looking for people who wanted to rent their kitchen while they’re closed during the day. It’s perfect for us because we have the kitchen to ourselves and a lot of storage space. We can get orders of up to 6,000 truffles for holidays so we really need the extra room.
That's an insane amount of truffles.
It's crazy. They look really pretty when they're all together.
The jewel truffles are so beautiful. How did you come up with that idea?
I realized I had to do something really different to stand out and I’m a baker at heart. What I wanted was to find a way to have really nostalgic classic desserts that would be eye-catching and beautiful.
Everything today is about color, and you want to make something that people want to take a photo of and share. The truffles really stand out, but still have a really familiar quality since they’re filled with desserts that people love.
What do your parents think now? Have you “made it”?
[Laughs] They're obsessed. Once I started getting them reservations at Babbo for their friends they came around.
I joke, but they've always been so supportive. I get random calls during the day from people my dad has told about the business.
What do you think has been the biggest challenge in starting your own business?
It's sort of like working in a restaurant. Nothing's going to prepare you. Everything takes a lot of time, so I think time management is the biggest challenge. But I always wanted to have a job that I was really passionate about and obsessed with, and now I do. I could literally work from the moment I wake up until the moment I'm going to bed and be completely happy.
What's the best piece of advice you could give?
Definitely do your research, really plan things out. Delegate, and also ask for help. The more you plan, the better things will be in the long run. It can be tempting to just jump into things.
Also, in terms of starting your own business, you need to trust your instincts. Everybody will try to tell you what to do and how to do it. If you have a vision, stick to it.
What does New York mean to you?
Visit Mini Melanie for delicious treats!