Melissa Weller, the James Beard Award-nominated baker behind Sadelle's, on cooking her way through Nancy Silverton's iconic La Brea Bakery cookbook, creating the perfect bagel for Sadelle's, and the trick to the perfect chocolate chip loaf.
Perhaps the least surprising thing about Melissa Weller is that she was once an engineer. She still is, essentially: As a baker, she’s exacting in what she creates, thoughtful and strategic. These days her processes result in the sort of sticky buns and bagels and babkas that make devotees out of even the flightiest New Yorkers. Her chocolate chip loaf is a feat of physics. At Sadelle’s, the bakery-slash-appetizing shop she opened last year with the team at Major Food Group, mornings are an ode to baked goods and opulence, to lox and laminated doughs alike.
Bagels are the stars of Weller’s menu, chewy and fresh and often scattered with seeds or loaded with smoked fish sliced from slabs that sit in display cases like big fleshy jewels. Sadelle’s has all the polish and grandeur of a Major Food Group restaurant—the company also owns Manhattan’s Carbone, Torrisi, Parm, and Santina—with the accessible comfort of a top-notch bakery. This month, Weller was named as a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Baker award.
I had read that she once spent a year baking through Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery, and I wanted the full story—so over coffee and a slice of that soft, ricotta-rich, near-perfect chocolate chip loaf, I asked her how she came to bake.
F&W: How and when did you become interested in baking?
MW: I always loved baking. I baked at home with my mom when I was growing up in New Jersey, but it was in the ‘80s, so it was stuff that was halfway mixed already, you just finished it, and I think I was very interested in making everything from scratch.
In college I studied in France for a year, and I loved all the bread and baked goods I tasted there. When I came back I was pretty intent on making everything I had experienced, but I couldn’t find very many English-language cookbooks about French baking.
F&W: So you had, what, Silver Palate?
MW: Yes, The Silver Palate and The New Basics.
I took a job after college as an engineer and I would just bake all the time [in my free time]. The internet wasn’t really a thing quite yet. I remember the first time you could look up a recipe on the internet, one of the first websites that had recipes was Godiva.com. And I would secretly print them out at my engineering job and bring them home. Epicurious was also one of the first ones. And I just sort of gravitated toward those. So that was in 1995, and by the early 2000s, food websites were everywhere. In that time my own personal cookbook collection exploded, too; all of a sudden you could buy cookbooks in which people were explaining things in a comprehensive way.
Back then some of my favorites, which I still use, were Baking with Julia, Breads from La Brea Bakery, and Pastries from La Brea Bakery. I baked a ton at home. And then I moved from New Jersey to San Francisco and I tried my hand at working in restaurants. That was a hard switch to make, coming from a corporate environment and going to a restaurant environment, so I jumped back into engineering in the late 90s, and I kept baking and cooking at home. In 2001 or 2002 I was like, this is it. I want to do something in baking, or cooking, so I went to the best restaurant that I could find in San Diego [where I was living at the time]. It was called the Wine Cellar and Brasserie. I said, “do you have anything? I’ll work for free,” and they immediately stuck me on pastry.
F&W: Talk to me about baking through La Brea Breads.
MW:At a certain point I decided I really wanted to do bread and I wanted to make a baguette. My first job here in the city was at Goupil & DeCarlo patisserie in Chelsea Market, but the job wasn’t a good fit, and I was not left with many options for bakeries. It was 2004. There wasn’t this entrepreneurial spirit—today, I can think of lots of little bakeries where I’d like to go and learn and work. But in 2004 there weren’t so many.
F&W: If you wanted to get a good loaf of bread, where would you go?
MW: It was the main ones: Balthazar, but they make all of their things in New Jersey; Sullivan Street Bakery; and Amy’s Bread. Those all felt sort of big to me, sort of industrial, and I didn’t feel that that was how I wanted to learn. So [after graduating from the French Culinary Institute] I decided to work at Babbo—I loved how Gina DiPalma was combining ingredients on the plate, and back then there weren’t a lot of places that were infusing savory elements [into desserts], either.
She had a job opening, and I took it. I stayed there for two years, and I loved it, and it was my favorite job out of all the jobs I’ve had in the industry. I loved working for her. She was my mentor. And I worked so hard for her.
Blogs were just starting to happen—they weren’t really big yet, they became big in the next year or two after that—and I thought, that’s a great idea! So I said, I’m going to start my own blog and I’m going to bake my way through Nancy Silverton’s book.
I set a schedule for myself while I was working at Babbo, because her book is pretty—it’s like a three-day process to get a loaf of bread. Everything has a sourdough starter in it, and I didn’t really know anything about a sourdough starter, and I couldn’t find very many resources out there that talked about it. I had a very technical bread book, and I had [Nancy’s] book. I think it was really that blog that kept it going. You could take a picture, and write a little story about it, and I thought, okay, I feel like I’m doing something. I learned a lot about bread. I felt like this was what I wanted to do.
F&W: Did Nancy ever find out about your project?
MW: No, I guess I could have reached out to her, but I was a little shy. She was friends with Mario [Batali], and he had partnered with [her restaurant] Mozza. She came to the kitchen while I was working at Babbo, but it wasn’t the right time to say, hey, look at what I’m doing! I was such a newbie and such a fledgling. But I met her this summer through Charlotte [Druckman]. She did try my baked goods and she loved them, so that’s been really nice.
F&W: Tell me about how Sadelle’s was born—did Major Food Group come to you with the idea, or was the idea born of the partnership?
MW: Doing bagels was always a project in their heads. It’s in the same vein as what they do with their other restaurants: they take something that’s been bastardized or Americanized and they make it new again. At the time, I was doing bagels at Smorgasburg, and nobody else was really doing bagels.
So I met with Jeff [Zalasknik] and Mario [Carbone]. I was looking for partners who had restaurant experience. I had already done a lot of challenging wholesale selling at Roberta’s, and I knew I wanted to find partners who were able to bring money to the table and who understood the restaurant industry in the city, which isn’t easy to find. It was a 50/50 partnership. We knew from the start that the focus would be bagels, but also as a bread baker I bring a lot to the table. So at some point we’ll open up a commissary bakery and start producing breads for the other restaurants, too.
F&W: Do you feel pressure to change the menu to sustain the attention and hype that you’ve gotten? Is that something you think about?
MW: I definitely think about it. I think, especially from the bakery perspective, that things will change and keep getting better and better. I just want the bakery to get better and to be a reflection of what I do. I think it has a long ways to go. After opening and having everyone come in at once, and then watching the rush taper off, I now want to focus on making my food really good. I think what people are really interested in is pretty straightforward. I think people search out comfort pastries and comfort food.
F&W: Is that what you’re excited about creating? Do you want to make things that are a little crazier?
MW: With our menu, I really tried to make the very best of everything. I wanted to make the very best babka, the very best chocolate chip loaf. Sadelle’s is all about elevating the classics. Once those classics are elevated—for me, as a baker, personal fulfillment comes from making new things— I definitely want to find a way to do that.
F&W: Talk to me about the chocolate chip loaf—it’s kind of perfect.
MW: It’s a ricotta pound cake, and any time you put chocolate chips in a batter they sink, right? If you use big chips they sink to the bottom, and if you used chopped chocolate, it’s very labor intensive. At first I started out chopping Mast Brothers chocolate bars by hand! And then my sous baker Zoe, who is really great, said, “well that’s really bittersweet—when I think of a chocolate chip cake, I think of something that’s more semisweet.”
She came from Milk Bar, and they used a really specific mini chocolate chip there. So we bought that, thinking that was going to be the perfect chip, but guess what, it sank. We had tried everything: we tried freezing the loaf, we tried putting the chocolate chips on the top right as it was going into the oven, and nothing was working.
So finally we were like, well, we need to find a semi-sweet chocolate chip that we can chop. So we finally found a chocolate chip we liked. It’s from Caillebaut, I think it’s 53% chocolate, and we put it in the robot coupe, then we sift out the chunks, and we get the perfect size. Because it’s just tinier than a cannoli chocolate chip, but it’s not so tiny.