Born and raised in New York City, Chef Melissa O’Donnell has worked consistently in restaurants since 1991. She started in the front of the house as a hostess, waitress and bartender and quickly fell in love with the business. In 1994 she decided to attend The French Culinary Institute. After graduating with Honors she was asked to stay on as an Assistant Chef and teach all of the four curriculum levels. She was given the “Outstanding Graduate Award” in 2003.
How did you get into the Culinary industry?
I fell into the culinary industry. I always thought that everyone should wait tables at some point in their life. When I returned to NYC after college, I wanted to be a social worker that worked with homeless children. The idea of waitressing for the summer while I looked for a social work job seemed like a good idea. I started working as a waitress at The Peninsula Hotel. When I finally got my dream job at The Rites of Passage program at Covenant House, I kept my job as a waitress to supplement my income. The Peninsula Hotel really instills a love of service into its employees. The hotel’s philosophy really resonated with me and I found that I increasingly enjoyed serving people and making them happy through the dining experience. Next, I became completely enthralled with the food coming out of the kitchen. I wanted to be the person who created the food that gave so many people so much joy. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew I was enrolled at The French Culinary Institute. I never had any intention of becoming a Chef or a Restaurateur; but, each time I achieved one level of experience, I wanted to learn more and move on to the next level. Waiting tables for a summer turned into a life long career in the restaurant industry and I have loved every part of the journey. I can honestly say that I have worked in every capacity in a restaurant in both the front of the house and the back of the house.
Tell us about Thelma On Clinton. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the restaurant?
Thelma on Clinton is the creative culmination of my 10 years on The Lower East Side owning Salt Bar. In the decade that I spent in the neighborhood I really fell in love with the community and diversity of The Lower East Side. The neighborhood is so rich in history. The immigrant spirit is alive and well here in a way that is not evident in the rest of Manhattan. It is the eclectic nature of the neighborhood that inspired my menu at Thelma on Clinton. Drawing from the diverse ethnicity of the neighborhood, I created a small plates menu that pays homage to the neighborhood. Dishes like house cured dill pickles, house pickled fish, and house smoked trout are all directly pulled from the neighborhood’s history; while, soy poached vegetables and braised lamb shank with homemade Merguez sausage are inspired by the neighborhood’s culture.
I decided to name Thelma on Clinton after my grandmother Thelma. She was the product of an immigrant family and really embodied the immigrant spirit that is alive and well on The Lower East Side. Moreover, I wanted a welcoming, homey environment; so, referencing my grandmother made perfect sense.
What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Thelma On Clinton's success?
When we Launched Thelma on Clinton we realized that in addition to the usual press, social media and web presence; a strong local following was key to our success. We partnered with Zipcard 10002 a neighborhood marketing and loyalty program. It allowed us to launch strongly in the neighborhood, retain customers and continue to reach new customers on a regular basis.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
The trend I have noticed the most is the move towards casual dining. Whether it’s small plates, like we serve at Thelma on Clinton, or fast casual restaurants; people seem to want ease and variety of choice when they dine out. They do not seem to want to commit to the old format of appetizer, entrée and dessert. Thelma on Clinton has all small plates so that groups can share and create the experience they want. People who want a traditional meal can create that at Thelma on Clinton, or they can sample and peruse the menu at their own pace.
Do what makes you happy.
Thelma On Clinton's Motto?
Creating community through food.
Your greatest success as Proprietor/Chef of Thelma On Clinton? Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?
My greatest success: being embraced by my community on Clinton Street and The Lower East Side.
My most difficult moment: Opening up during the incredibly cold winter of 2013-14. Problems during construction held back the opening and when we finally opened on December 17th the holiday season was already wrapping up. It taught me that no matter how well you plan, you don’t have control over everything. I found through this experience, and others like it, that the best way to succeed as a restaurateur is to remain flexible. You need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances around you.
Your advice to an aspiring restauranteur?
Remain humble and don’t think you are different or better than anyone else. Many first time restaurateurs think that they can take short cuts and avoid the road-blocks that every other restaurateur has endured when opening a restaurant. Certain rules apply to opening a business for a reason. They apply to everyone and you are no exception. Knowing that will lead you to success.
Describe the ideal experience at Thelma On Clinton.
Thelma on Clinton’s menu focuses on small plates so trying many different dishes is the way to go. For that reason, there are two distinct ideal experiences at Thelma on Clinton.
The first is sitting alone, or with one friend, at the bar, having a variety of small plates, and watching us cook for an entire restaurant off of two electric burners. People are fascinated by the ease with which me and cooks are able to produce food out of our tiny space. Creating a menu that allows us to do that is something that makes me very proud.
The second one is coming in with a large group and having the Chef’s Choice menu at the communal table. When a large group comes in and has the Chef’s Choice menu they really get a chance to sample a large portion of the menu. We serve it family style in multiple courses. It is very informal and much different than a traditional tasting menu. Traditional tasting menus ask you to focus on the chef and the food. By allowing me to send out food informally, groups can focus on each other and their conversation while being fed well.
Most popular dishes and your favorites?
Honey Glazed dates wrapped in bacon
Chicken liver mousse with prosecco gelee
Braised short ribs, marrow bone.
Brunch: Homemade maple sausage, buttermilk biscuits, poached eggs and Hollandaise.
I never put anything on the menu that I am not completely happy serving to customers so it is impossible to choose favorites. Having said that, the items I actually eat all the time are the shaved cabbage with Pecorino cheese, toasted almonds, lemon and Extra Virgin olive oil; the house-pickled blue fish; and the homemade mozzarella.
How do you motivate your employees?
Motivating my employees is the easiest part of my job. I like to focus on each person’s individual talent and reward him/her for it. No one is good at everything but everyone is good at something. So in the kitchen the person with the best organizational skills will be given the responsibility of organizing the walk-in, and the best pastry person makes the desserts. That way, everyone is made to feel like an important and integral part of the team while doing what comes easiest and most enjoyable to him/her.
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
This is probably the most difficult question of all. But for sentimental and emotional reasons, my food choice would be steamed lobster with drawn butter, eaten outdoors at a picnic table with my hands. I would have a chilled glass of white wine with it: preferably a Basque Txacoli or an Italian Gavi di Gavi.
What literature is on your bed stand?
Current and past issues of The New Yorker
The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter Than You Think.
Role model - business and personal?
Business: My father. He was an incredibly talented and kind businessman. Firstly, he was very savvy and good at business. Early in my career he helped me navigate difficult situations with ease. Secondly, he had a medium sized company and he treated employees like members of his family. Many of them worked for him for decades and we often had them at our house for holiday celebrations. I treat my employees the same way and have found that it creates an enjoyable work environment while also being good business. Like my father, I have people who have worked with me for over a decade. It creates harmony at work that translates into a consistent and cohesive product/experience for the customer.
Personal: My grandmother, Thelma. Growing up in an immigrant family, my grandmother started selling buttons door to door at the age of 5. She continued working her entire life and had two full time jobs to send my father to Boston College. The best part is that she never realized how hard working or selfless she was. She was a truly kind and strong woman and an inspiration to me.
I am fascinated with creating everything I use myself. I call it “Urban Homesteading”. At Thelma on Clinton that means that we make everything ourselves; from cheese, cured meats, and preserves (we sell these) to non-food items including scented candles for the restaurant bathroom (we sell them as well), scented hand soap that cuts kitchen odors (still in development) and planting herbs for the restaurant at the community garden across the street from Thelma on Clinton.
Favorite travel destination?
Mexico: any part of Mexico. I feel most at home when I am there.
What's next for Thelma On Clinton?
I am developing a diversified line of goods and products based on what Thelma on Clinton does and represents. First, I want to create a packaged food product line of items that we currently have on the menu at Thelma on Clinton. Secondly, we are getting ready to launch our Youtube channel where I show the home cook how easy it is to create great food in a small space. And finally, I would like to develop products and utensils geared toward small New York City kitchens. I have thrived in a tiny kitchen environment and would like to produce products that can help the home cook in small urban kitchens do the same.
Melissa gained all of her cooking experience in downtown Manhattan restaurants. Dan Barber hired her for her first Chef position at La Cigale in Nolita. Before opening her first restaurant in 2001, Melissa was the Chef at Le Zoo in The West Village.
In the summer of 2001 Melissa opened Stella in SoHo with a couple from New Zealand. They received rave reviews. Unfortunately after 9/11 the team was unable to sustain the business. In May of 2002, one year after opening, Stella closed and Melissa re-designed the space as Salt.
Salt opened in the summer of 2002. It built its reputation as one of the first farm to table restaurants in New York City sourcing the best seasonal ingredients. Clean Plates featured Melissa O'Donnell as one of three chefs for it’s first issue. Moreover, the communal tables, open kitchen and friendly staff, created the convivial atmosphere that made it a neighborhood institution. New York Magazine and Time Out New York named Salt one of the top 100 places to eat in 2003. Melissa and Salt were also featured in “New York Cooks: 100 recipes from the City’s Best Chefs” which was published in 2010.
Salt Bar opened in the spring of 2003. As a pioneer on the Lower East Side, Melissa O’Donnell and Salt Bar introduced the neighborhood to upscale pub food. Adam Platt of New York Magazine and Time Out New York both named Salt Bar as one of the top 100 places to eat in New York in 2004.
Melissa maintained Salt and Salt Bar for 10 years. In addition, she has done catering for Donna Karan and The Urban Zen Foundation.
In the fall of 2013 Melissa decided to close Salt Bar after a decade and change it into Thelma on Clinton, a small plates restaurant with a menu that reflects the diversity of the Lower East Side.
In keeping with her desire to provide an environment where people feel at home, Thelma on Clinton has taken some of the best parts of Melissa’s previous restaurants. The open kitchen, communal table, lounge and white marble bar all work to create a warm neighborhood feel. Melissa looks forward to many years of cooking and sharing food and with the members of her community.
(Photo Credit: Katie Foster)