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Until I met Melissa Murphy Hagenbart, I didn't think character and fate could be foretold by the date of one's birth.

Melissa is the chef behind Sweet Melissa Patisserie, the greatest pastry shop in Brooklyn and one of the best in all New York City. A lot of work goes into being a successful baker, but it's hard to believe that the way Melissa was born didn't have something to do with it too. On Thanksgiving in 1970, Melissa's mother, Pamela Weill, insisted on cooking dinner, including two kinds of pie, even though she was nine months pregnant. After the meal, she packed herself off to the hospital and had Melissa. Actually, she knew she was in labor early in the day but kept quiet because, she says, "I thought they wouldn't let me eat my dinner."

Pamela feels that her daughter was destined to work in the restaurant business. Some other aspects of Melissa's life were also decided on Thanksgiving, it seems. The pastry chef who was born after the pie course can make dainty French tarts with the best of them, but says, "I'd rather do classic American desserts that taste incredible but look just okay, instead of desserts that don't taste as good as they look." Before opening Sweet Melissa, Melissa made a name for herself in Manhattan at Home Restaurant and Drover's Tap Room. "A lot of people who've worked for me want to do 'uptown desserts,'" says David Page, who owns both restaurants. "Not Melissa."

She can put a spin on an old recipe without sending it spinning out of control. She tops a pear-cranberry pie with crumbled gingersnaps, keeping the flavors of the fruit as crisp as the first day that fall crackles into town. For her thumbprint cookies, she drops jam into a dimple in a spoonful of dough made with roasted pistachios. And she knows when to leave well enough alone; her sticky buns are different from ordinary sticky buns in just one way: they're better.

Two years ago, ready to start her own business, Melissa turned her back on the preposterous Manhattan real estate market and found a tiny storefront in Brooklyn. Realtors divide her area into Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and Carroll Gardens, but it looks and feels like one neighborhood, with block after block of landmarked brick and brownstone houses, their stoops fenced in by antique cast iron.

Melissa saw that those houses were full of Brooklyn newcomers who were hungry for Manhattan-style food. And the old-timers, instead of treating her as a gentrifying invader, welcomed her: a couple of restaurants even let her use their ovens for two months when hers refused to work. The area has since embraced an energetic group of young restaurants, including Saul, a refined American bistro, and Uncle Pho, a colonial-chic Vietnamese spot.

The daughter of the woman who made pie, roasted turkey and gave birth on the same day keeps to a fairly tight schedule herself. Melissa gets up around dawn most days and, before going to the pastry shop, drives to Staten Island to ride Lexi, the horse she stables there. On weekends, she makes wedding cakes. When she's not baking, she and her husband are renovating their century-old row house nearby.

The one thing Melissa doesn't do, it seems, is bake for her own birthday. "We just stick some candles in the Thanksgiving pie," her mother says. "And that's her birthday cake."

Published November 1999
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