Melia Marden makes an abundantly artful life into an expanding Soho foodie enterprise
Her bacon is famous. So is a notable portion of her clientele at The Smile on Bond Street. What started out in 2008 as a lunch cafe that served small sandwiches has quickly evolved into a fashion-world, hipster haunt with a to-go counter down the street and a catering arm at nearby Milk Studios servicing fickle photo shoot crews (not an easy crowd to please). And now, Melia Marden is publishing a Greek-influenced cookbook, Modern Mediterranean.
“I have the ticket for the first dinner we served—a single cheese plate. It was very, very slow in the beginning,” says Marden, who has a sly, quiet Marlene Dietrich vibe going on. “Everything has grown word-of-mouth, which didn’t feel so nice at the time. I never thought I could actually do this.”
When we first meet, Marden is busy preparing a Sunday supper for friends at Rose Hill, her parents’ 18th-century estate in Tivoli on the Hudson. She’s leaning over a long table at the center of the kitchen, wearing a locally sourced vintage dress with silver-dusted Chanel boots, a Christmas gift from her mother. The table is laden with stacks of vintage china, bright platters and vases of homegrown flowers—enormous roses, lilies and cherry-blossom branches. Her parents’ dogs wander in and out. Various party guests pitch in. Margaret James, a sculptor, slices baguettes. Vivian Kamen, a former pastry chef, searches for a jar of jam to whisk into the salad dressing. At one point, Frank Sisti Jr., a DJ and video artist—and Marden’s husband—leads a troupe of his pals on a mission to create a candle-scape for the feast.
“I’m moving this into the warming oven,” Marden says to no one in particular, as she slides a pan of potatoes into the kitchen’s teal AGA, a Swedish oven range. “The warming oven,” she repeats with a wry smile. Marden tends to savor the pleasures of a carefully curated life spiked with a healthy dose of humor.
As the afternoon progresses, Marden ticks off her list: pork chops with rosemary and oregano, lemony roasted potatoes with grapes, a mixed green salad with plums, roasted asparagus, green beans with shallots and, for dessert, a rhubarb crumble. As she’s scattering fried shallots over green beans her dad, abstract expressionist Brice Marden, wanders in with her mom, Helen, also a painter, who, baring a bunch of fresh-cut daffodils and wearing a blazing yellow scarf and leather-fringed sleeves, appears as though she belongs in a museum of the fantastic.
It’s Helen who inspired Marden to cook and to write Modern Mediterranean. Helen has always preferred to have the house full of people, with a pot of something fragrant simmering on the stove. Dishes were presented family-style, arranged to look, in Melia’s memory, “heaping, beautiful, colorful, abundant and not sloppy, really lush, effortless and natural.” Many of the recipes featured in the book Marden lifted directly from Helen and from the family’s summer trips to Hydra in Greece. Marden admits she took both for granted as a kid.
"My mom would go braless and wear these purple feather jackets that really embarrassed us."
“My mom would go braless and wear these purple feather jackets that really embarrassed us,” she told me, as we sipped rosé one night at The Smile. It wasn’t until she was an 18-year-old living in London (before attending college at Harvard the following year) with her sister, Mirabelle, that the two began to throw parties of their own, impressing their entourage with the one dish they’d learned: Helen’s green curry chicken curry. “The thing that makes the process of creating a cookbook so natural to me is that there’s this part of childhood you take for granted,” Marden says. “Later, when you realize it, you want to pin it down somehow.”
This may explain why her chosen New York locale is Soho. During the 1980s and ’90s, Marden hung out around her dad’s studio on the Bowery when the buildings still served as homeless shelters and artist squats, and the general vibe was rough and tumble. The neighborhood has managed to retain its muted colors and wide streets, a visual aesthetic Marden describes as “1950s movie set.”
It was also in Soho that her sister Mirabelle opened and curated the gallery Rivington Arms in the early 2000s, a downtown hub that launched the likes of artists Dash Snow and Mathew Cerletty. “Café Colonial was the place I went back then,” says Marden of the Soho spot she misses most. “It felt really relaxed, casual but friendly. It had its own funky look. It wasn’t over-styled. We tried to make The Smile a place like that, someone’s personal restaurant.“
If you ask Marden who has influenced her casual yet precise aesthetic (other than her mom), she might mention Jennifer Rubell, the food-based performance artist she studied with, or Maya Gurley of Maya’s in St. Barth’s, in whose kitchen Marden once worked. Ask about her husband’s influence, however, and her face lights up. “I don’t take Frankie for granted,” she says, leaning back in her chair at The Smile.
The two met at a Great Gatsby-themed party Marden hosted one summer when the Tivoli house was still so new that there wasn’t any electricity. Frankie showed up with a lot of people. “He was so easy to talk to and positive, so enthusiastic and happy and not tortured,” Marden says. He appears on The Smile’s menu in the form of a controversial dish he invented: a Brie and chocolate sandwich. After all, Marden says of his baguette, “It’s important not to take things too seriously. It’s only food on some level. I want people to be happy and I want the food to be good but I don’t want to be tortured about it.”
Visit The Smile at 26 Bond Street.
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