2001 Graduate of Professional Culinary Arts and The Art of International Bread Baking
With two Italian restaurants in New York City—Bar Eolo and Pastai—and a cookbook on the way, one might expect Melissa Muller Daka to be a bit overworked. In fact, she’s focused, energized and quite content because for Daka, cooking and writing about Sicilian food isn’t work at all. It’s life and it’s been that way since she was four years old. “As a child I spent summers in Sicily and everything was about the food. I’d miss Sicily so much during the school year that I’d recreate it in the kitchen. By the time I was a teenager, I was making all the holiday dinners.”
After high school, she attended NYU but was more excited by her restaurant job than her classes; she enrolled at the International Culinary Center in 2001. A lover of all things Italian, she embraced the classic French education as the perfect complement to the Sicilian sauces, braises and pastas she grew up with. “I changed a lot. I went from playing with flavors to understanding why and how to create flavors.”
Right after graduation, she noticed a restaurant for sale “at a really low price” on MacDougal and Bleecker. With a keen business sense, she took over the four-year lease and opened Osteria del Gallo Nero, specializing in Tuscan fare. It did well, but as these things often go in NYC, when it came time to renegotiate the lease, the price was too high.
In between catering gigs, she spent the next few years at Columbia University’s School of General Studies pursuing a degree in Italian and Middle Eastern Studies which allowed her the flexibility to explore ingredients from a social and anthropological perspective. When the restaurant business, inevitably, beckoned again, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.
“Bar Eolo is Sicilian. That’s what it’s about. But new Sicilian, not your grandmother’s. Sicily is now very international, with chefs who have traveled and trained elsewhere. They treat traditional dishes with different techniques. That is the cuisine of Eolo.” It’s also the focus of her upcoming cookbook with will also delve into Sicily’s history.
Not content with just one restaurant, she opened Pastai, an artisan pasta bar, to offer a sophisticated and experimental take on Southern Italian food. She hopes to expand. “It’s strong in look and concept with an open kitchen that allows customers to watch the pasta being made; they can also buy it for home.” Recently diagnosed with celiac, she serves an array of gluten-free breads and pastas.
“ICC focused me. I learned a lot about time management which prepared me for not just the kitchen, but life. Knowing mise en place, technique, knowing what to do when. Every stop of the way changed me as a person, not just a cook. I opened my first restaurant at 22. It was tough, but I was prepared.” Learn more about her at www.melissamullerdaka.com.