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28 Oct - Interview with Melia Marden & Lindsay Todres of The Smile

New York

We can’t think of a better example of a cozy neighborhood cafe than the Smile. Started as a small perch on the cobbled roads of Bond Street in SoHo, the Smile has turned into a mini empire of the kind of restaurants you want to visit for wholesome, all-day food. That’s exactly why we partnered with the Smile to Go to open up a cafe in Freehand New York, and this Halloween, they’ll be making a special set of treats to serve all afternoon long at our annual celebration. We sat down with two of the brains behind the Smile — chef Melia Marden and director of partnerships and events, Lindsay Todres — to talk about how they keep the empire running, and their favorite new eats for the fall.

Freehand: Can you share with our readers a little bit of what your day to day looks like? So much happens behind the scenes, between all the brick and mortar restaurants, catering, podcast, pop ups, and so on.

Melia Marden: I move around our different locations, tasting food and checking in on menu changes and developments. If there’s a big event or catering job, I’ll focus on helping in the kitchen at that location. I’m involved in hiring any new managers and head chefs. We’re always looking at our service style, menu, layout, et cetera and seeing what needs to be added, taken away, or changed. For the Freehand location, I’ve focused on streamlining our market menu and adding more options for the customers, like grab and go, additional entrees, and add-ons.

Lindsay Todres: Melia and I are like passing ships. I also travel between all our locations, check in with the catering team or Smile Radio, or meet with clients for events or special projects. When we have a big event, buyout or popup, I will concentrate on that — Fashion Week stuff at Milk Studios when we were in-house there, or the Marc Jacobs popup on Madison. I help all the locations with signage and marketing stuff and generally just give my two cents on everything (even when I’m not asked).

FH NY : Melia, you went to Harvard — what did you go for? Did you cook growing up and was food always an interest, or was it something that started to pique your interest in a more formal and conscious way as you studied or practiced other things?

MM: I studied art history but realized quickly that I didn’t really want to work at a museum or in the art world. I grew up cooking with my mom, but it wasn’t until after I graduated that I considered food in any professional capacity. I decided to go to cooking school and started a small catering company from there.

FH NY: Can you pinpoint when you knew that you wanted to be a chef?

MM: I don’t think I fully committed to being a “chef” for a long time. I knew I wanted to work with food when I was interning at a magazine and researching who would be the next Martha Stewart (this is when she went to prison). I realized I didn’t want to be looking things up on the computer. I wanted to do something more immediate and tactile.

FH NY: Lindsay, how did you come to be in the director position that you are in now? I know that you moved to New York City to get your master’s degree in media studies at the New School after graduating from McGill in Montreal. What led you to The Smile?

LT: I was working in production after grad school and I had become friendly with Matt [Kliegman, co-owner of The Smile] through a mutual friend. He was opening a restaurant and offered me a barista job. This was 10 years ago.

FH NY: How have each of your roles grown since the birth of the first Smile restaurant in 2009 on Bond Street and your own beginnings with the company?

MM: When I started as the head chef at The Smile, I had no experience running a kitchen and almost none working in one. It was very hands on. I was in the kitchen full time working the line and prepping while also figuring out how to hire, schedule and order. There was a lot of trial and error and problem solving. Once we opened Smile To Go I had to learn how to manage more people and delegate responsibilities. Now I feel like the most important part of my job is quality control and maintaining the spirit of our style of food and service.

LT: My role has grown alongside the growth of The Smile, which has been rewarding and organic. I opened Smile To Go on Howard and was managing the Smile Cafe on Bond Street at the same time, for example. It takes hustle! We’ve done a lot of things over the years and I’ve learned so much from each new thing.

FH NY : Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef and owner of the New York restaurant, Prune, once said, “Be careful what you get good at doin’, cuz you’ll be doin’ it for the rest of your life.” Do either of you have any future plans to expand upon what you have learned and experienced and use what you have gained in this industry or within this company?

MM: I’ve been saying this for years, but I would like to write another cookbook with all the Smile To Go recipes I love from over the years.

LT: I love this industry even though it’s crazy and maddening sometimes. I love my Smile family, and I want to open more restaurants because we are authentic and successful, and that’s a rare mix.

FH: What is your favorite dish at the Smile to Go at Freehand NY? Any new pastries or dishes our readers should go in to try?

MM: I love the market items on our fall menu, but my favorite is the fennel and savoy cabbage salad with roasted garlic vinaigrette. Its crunchy and tart with a bit of roasty depth from the dressing. I think it contrasts nicely with our sweeter, heartier roasted vegetable dishes.

FH NY: Favorite places to eat in New York?

MM: King, Babs, Keen’s, Odeon

LT: Raoul’s, Hart’s, Mission Chinese, Wildair

FH NY: Top 5 food books and movies (top 5 of each) to recommend to our readers?

MM & LT:

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
Blood, Bones & Butter
The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Movies (and TV shows):
Does Friends count? Monica is a chef and Melia has seen every episode.
Anything Anthony Bourdain
Tie between Chef and Burnt

FH: What’s on your Smile To Go playlist right now?

LT: Lots of 90’s R&B.

FH NY: What treats did you make for the DIY reusable trick or treat totes the attendees made during our co-hosted kids Halloween Party here at Freehand this past Saturday?

MM: Halloween sprinkle cookies!


Interview and photos by:  Alison Poole