Volume 80, Number 27 | December 2 - 8, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Photo by Chris Oliver
Chef Bernard Ros in front of Meli-Melo.
A Go-to Chef Shares His Success
Chef Bernard Ros’s secret to a long, happy life is in his kitchen
By Rowann Gilman
If you’re looking for information about the food business in New York City, Bernard Ros is your go-to guy. But if it’s good food, easygoing neighborhood-y feeling and recession-proof prices you’re after, his restaurant, Meli-Melo, is the place to be.
Meli-Melo roughly translates as “mélange,” in this case, a mix of French and Italian cuisines that combines the best of both, with a few flourishes tucked in. The restaurant’s hand-painted wall mural says it all: maps of France, Italy, China, and England accompanied by portraits of native fish swimming in the surrounding ‘seas.’
Ros arrived in the U.S. a little more than 40 years ago to see the 1967 World’s Fair, and decided to stay. Immediately, his innovative cooking style caught on and he was able to start the first of five restaurants that he has, at one time or another, created all over town. East side, west side, upper west down to Tribeca and now the Madison Park area, Ros has gentrified his chosen neighborhoods with his uncluttered, flavor-centric menus.
As executive chef and exclusive pastry chef, Ros is a believer in letting the taste of the main ingredient shine through, without the interference of heaps and foams of cover-up flavors. Considered to be one of the most creative chefs in the city, he is also known to be among the most good-hearted people in a hard-driving business.
At night, Meli-Melo turns into a hiring hall for anyone looking for a job, recommendations, referrals, gossip, and industry news. Out comes the Rolodex; phone calls are made, appointments set. What’s more, before Ros places a chef, he trains him in his own kitchen, sharing his recipes, teaching the prospective chef how to prepare them, and offering sound business advice. He will even train the wait-staff. Most executive chefs guard their recipes with their lives, but Ros believes that no one is in business to do a bad job. Well-trained employees carry that message with them.
“The eyes eat first,” Ros says. In other words, food must be appealing to the eye as well as the palate and for that reason he emphasizes plating and presentation. In the old days, when service was performed tableside, often in the form of showy flambés and individual carvers, food didn’t have the same appeal on the plate. When composed for presentation in the kitchen, it comes to the table as a complete visual experience.
“People aren’t interested in elegant dining the way they used to be,” says Ros. “They don’t want to get dressed up for dinner. The hardships of the economy push change, and you must adapt with your pocket, not your palate,” he adds. “You’ll notice that the places opening now are burger restaurants and tacquerias that offer low-cost, casual, homey food. Before the recession, restaurants in need of a pick-me-up might count on changing the chef, moving to a new location, or checking out what the competition is up to.
“These days, you have to be more flexible—develop new, less-expensive menus, offer comfort foods. We serve a $22 three-course lunch and a $24 complete dinner, and our menu lists six or seven appetizers and entrées that include wild-caught salmon, hanger steak, cod, strip steaks, and half a dozen pasta dishes” as well as other familiar and comfortable foods for which his customers make repeat visits. There is always a Special of the Day and a Vegetarian option.
Part of the way Ros keeps his costs down is by visiting the Hunt’s Point Market every day to stock up on his preferred ingredients rather than order them from an industry service. As a result of Ros’s’ savvy, the 40-plus years he’s been in business he’s accumulated customers who are now like family. “The idea is to be able to feel that anyone can walk in and find something they’d like to eat,” he says.
How does Ros, who is 65, stay as ebullient and active as anyone in the restaurant business has to be? “You have to eat your cake and enjoy it,” he says metaphorically. Ros feels that it’s all in your head: “It is very stressful to have a restaurant and you have to be up on your game. Don’t aim to project plans on your neighborhood. Instead, switch your rifle from your left hand to your right hand. Be flexible. I’m always waiting for sunshine to walk through the door,” he says, “so give your local restaurant a chance.”
Meli-Melo is located at 110 Madison Avenue between 29th and 30th Streets.