The first thing you want to ask Melissa Weller is if she ever has time for sleep.
As head baker at new FMC Tower restaurant Walnut Street Cafe, Weller’s all-day pastry program is an “integral” part of the project, per chef Daniel Eddy, who along with proprietors Branden McRill and Patrick Cappiello make up the trio of Michelin-starred New Yorkers behind the spot. She arrives every weekday before 6 a.m. and spends the day turning out carefully timed baked goods: Croissants and muffins in the morning, chocolate chip cookies, madeleines and bureka by mid day, everything pretzels and sausage rolls for happy hour and focaccia and brioche for dinner service.
But overseeing the gleaming new baking kitchen at the University City restaurant is just one hat Weller wears. She commutes back and forth to NYC every weekend, where she is mother to a 7-year-old son and also tends to Sadelle’s, the acclaimed SoHo deli-slash-bruncherie where she’s been a partner since opening. She’s working on her first cookbook, due out in 2018.
Oh, and she’s also narrowing down locations to launch her first solo bakery. (The answer to the sleep question is yes, by the way: “I try to go to bed early; 10 p.m. is late for me.”)
The first thing you want to do when you bite into one of Weller’s hazelnut cream-filled pastries is dream. They are that good.
Over the past several years, Weller has become something of a celebrity in the New York food world. Bloomberg called her a “bagel whisperer,” her babka has been hailed as best in the city (even though she’s not Jewish — imagine!), and her sticky buns were named one of 2015’s top food dishes by the New York Times.
Her rise to the top echelons of that hyper-competitive scene is extra impressive when you learn baking is her second career. Weller is a minister’s daughter who grew up in rural Northwest Pennsylvania and spent a decade in chemical engineering, helping design fuel cells that make cars more eco-friendly.
But the disparate sides of Weller’s resume are connected by one defining thread: Her exacting but down-to-earth character. Which is also why she’s such a perfect fit for Philly.
Country life in Clearfield
How did she end up in Philly? “How did I trick Melissa into coming here, you mean?” chef Eddy responded with a laugh.
Basically, Weller is here because she chose Philadelphia over Nashville. Eddy, McRill and Cappiello had decided they wanted to work with the rising star, and when they approached her, they offered her those two cities as options for future projects.
“I’m from Pennsylvania,” she explained, “so I had an affinity for Philly already. And it was close to New York.”
Weller spent her childhood pining after the romance of Paris in a place about as far away as you can get.
When she was growing up, Clearfield, Pa. (an hour west of State College), was a coal mining town with its own kind of charm. In 1966, seven years before Weller was born, it was one of the winners of the National Civic League’s All-American City Award. The place was enchanting enough to entice Weller’s father to stop roving from church to church — as is common for Methodist ministers — and settle down there.
She was raised sensibly, with very little ostentation. The family never went out to dinner, mostly because there weren’t many restaurants around. When they went on vacation, it was always a no-frills camping trip. When the destination was the Jersey Shore, for example, they dropped tents on the mainland and made daytrips to the sea.
Weller dreamed of someday traveling to France. When she got to Bucknell University, she majored in chemical engineering because it was the sensible choice. But then she saw an opportunity. If she double-majored in international relations, she would have an excuse to spend a semester abroad.
That semester, which began with her first-ever airplane flight, turned into a full year. As Weller struggled through biochemistry in French — “Maybe the toughest thing I’ve ever done” — she explored and fell in love with French cooking.
Back to the States
After graduation, Weller took a chemical engineering job in Allentown, but kept her cooking habits honed — as much as she could, since she had grown accustomed to the ingredients available overseas.
“I tried to bake brioche and it was a failure,” she recalled sadly. “And there was no chevre! No couscous!” This was the late 1990s, after all, in the Lehigh Valley.
Determined to keep hosting Francophilic dinner parties for her friends, Weller began making regular trips to Philly — which she was vaguely familiar with because her grandfather was a Penn and Jefferson grad — and treks to NYC to source ingredients and keep in touch with culinary culture. In her spare time, she created fanciful desserts and developed new recipes for dishes both savory and sweet.
West Coast calling
In 1998, Weller discovered California.
After taking a continuing education chemical engineering class in San Francisco, she decided she had to move there. With one change comes another, she thought, and so after setting herself up with a rental in Berkeley, she hit the streets looking for a restaurant job.
She got one, too — at Rubicon, an acclaimed New American restaurant from chef Drew Nieporant that boasted both Francis Ford Coppola and Robert De Niro as founding partners.
It didn’t last. The culture shock was just too much. “I went from having a salary and health insurance and a 401k to none of that,” Weller explained. She quit and returned to engineering, with a new plan: She’d figure out a way to attend culinary school.
That opportunity didn’t come around until 2001, when the San Diego firm where she was developing fuel cell tech announced it was shutting down. There was a good six months notice before the job ended, plus generous severance pay.
With that cushion, Weller figured she could handle restaurant work. She began training at The WineSeller & Brasserie, where the chef taught her basics of French cooking, like how to make bechamel and lemon curd. After a year, she enrolled at the French Culinary Institute in NYC and moved back to the East Coast.
‘Outshining everyone else’
It didn’t take long for Weller to get noticed, at least in the back of the house. After graduating from FCI in 2004 she landed at Mario Batali’s famous Babbo, and was taken under the wing of the late pastry master Gina DePalma.
“I was so nervous, all I knew is I didn’t want to fail,” Weller said, explaining how she spent each night poring over recipes so she would have them memorized. “I just worked so hard that I kind of ended up outshining everyone else.”
DePalma took to calling Weller a “superstar,” and her recommendation opened the doors to a position at Sullivan Street Bakery, considered one of the premier bread houses in the nation.
At Sullivan, Weller applied her same dedicated work ethic. The staff was mostly men, she said, and she was always fearful they would outdo her because so much of the work dealt with lifting heavy sacks of grain and flour. “So I strategized,” she remembered. “I just figured out how to organize my time better, and eventually I became faster than they were.”
Hired as a dough pH tester (not the first time her science background came in handy), she was promoted up to dough mixer, then dough shaper and then became the first woman to be awarded the title of “baker” in Sullivan Street’s history.
Talk of the Town
Next on the list was a stop as head baker at Per Se, the Thomas Keller restaurant considered one of the top 10 in the entire world. Just four years out of culinary school, Weller oversaw a team of five people executing a 24-hour baking and pastry program at the Manhattan fine-dining temple.
With the birth of her son in 2010, she decided to step away from the high stress job, and found a niche at Roberta’s, the cult-favorite Williamsburg pizzeria. There, she helped garner more attention for the extensive bread program, which was based on loaves baked in outdoor wood-burning ovens, “like baking in Bulgaria.” Three years later she left to start her own business.
With her bagel pop up came Weller’s first taste of real fame.
Her East River Bread stand at Smorgasburg was written up in dozens of publications, and earned her the “bagel whisperer” title. If you’re thinking, “What, New York was lacking in bagels?” — no, not really. But when Weller applied her signature scientific thoroughness to researching the best way to mix, proof, shape, coat and bake them, the rounds she produced were good enough to send jolts through the jaded bagel-loving community.
Unfortunately for Philly, those bagels will NOT make an appearance on the list of baked goods at Walnut Street Cafe. “You will never see bagels here!” Weller said. “I didn’t even want to do babka.”
Weller’s chocolate babka is one of the treats she became known for at Sadelle’s, which happened when the super-restaurateurs of Major Food Group fell for her bagels and came calling. In 2015, they convinced her to partner with them and open the unorthodox Jewish deli — which is still considered one of NYC’s top spots for what it does.
Falling for Philadelphia
Now that she’s here five days a week, renting a room in an apartment near the FMC Tower, she’s even more appreciative of what Philadelphia offers.
“I’m enjoying the space. There’s so much green [compared to NYC],” she said. “My apartment in Brooklyn — where I’ve lived for 13 years — feels like a dungeon in comparison.”
That doesn’t mean she’s about to move her family 90 miles south, especially because her son is in school and her husband still works at Babbo, where they met. But it does mean she’s becoming more and more emotionally invested in Walnut Street Cafe.
Bonus for all of us who’ll get to partake in her baked goods.