121407Melissa%20Murphy.jpgNative New Yorker Melissa Murphy is the mellifluous force behind Sweet Melissa Patisserie, a beloved Brooklyn house of tempting treats that opened in Cobble Hill in 1998. A graduate of New York’s French Culinary Institute, Murphy has spent the past decade building a budding dessert empire, bolstered by a profile-raising appearance on the Food Network and a baking book to be published by Viking in March. Last year Murphy added a second Sweet Melissa location in Park Slope and went on to claim the Zagat award for Best Tarts and Pies.

What makes your pies and tarts so award-worthy? At Sweet Melissa’s we strive to make “everyone’s favorite desserts, better than they’ve had them before.” All of our desserts and pastries are handmade; we are not interested in desserts that have 10 components. I want to eat chewy cookies, buttery muffins and luscious layer cakes – and I’m not alone!

Please tell us the story about what happened when you participated in a recent Food Network contest. My boyfriend Chris and I had driven down to the Grove Park Inn (in North Carolina) the day before the competition with all of my gear. My mom and dad were there to meet us. We grabbed a quick bite at the hotel’s buffet before I had to go to 2 meetings, one with the other competitors, and one with the judges. After the first meeting, I started to feel ill, by the judges meeting I was feeling very nauseous, and had to dump the contents of one of the judges plastic shopping bags as I ran to the bathroom. I thought I had food poising, which was not good, as one of the chefs was a judge! I went to the hospital, where they did a scan, and found out I did not have food poisoning, but a cyst on my ovary that needed emergency surgery. But then the pain subsided, and they held off on the surgery, kept me overnight, and released me to do the competition with the understanding that if I felt any more pain whatsoever, I would come in for the surgery immediately. The pain pretty much held off, so I was able to compete and ultimately win. I had surgery at home the next day.

How did you make edible garland for the contest? I strung dried figs and dipped them in amber colored liquid sugar, when they cooled they looked like beautiful glass beads. I strung warmed chestnuts (easier to get the needle through when they are warm!) and dipped the caps in melted milk chocolate and rolled the chocolate cap in sanding sugar so that it looked like acorns all strung together. Then I made birds out of a fondant/ marzipan combination, affixed them to clothespins and hand painted their heads and tails, added slivered almonds or wild rice for their beaks, and little sugar beads for their eyes. They were affixed to each end of the garland as if the birds were hanging the garlands on themselves.

What are your plans for the future? I am at this very moment negotiating a warehouse space in the neighborhood where I will relocate my Central production kitchen. It is 6200 square feet; we currently have about 1000 square feet. The new space has room for offices and enormous production capabilities. I want to maximize the stores that I have (we are adding a beer and wine license to both locations, and are creating a menu that compliments that). We have re-structured our management hierarchy and have gotten some great new systems in place.

All of this is being done so we can move forward with opening more stores when the time is right. We have recently started a very “selective” wholesale division, and are working with our new clients. My cookbook, The Sweet Melissa Baking Book is coming out on March 13th of 2008. I am working on the production of a T.V. show that will be marketed to the Food Network; my new production facility will have a studio kitchen in it for filming. I am also working on a Sweet Melissa’s frozen dessert line which I will market to Whole Foods, Fresh Direct, Trader Joes, etc. in the next 3-5 years.

Do you get up before dawn and go to work insanely early like most bakers?
On a daily basis, no – not anymore. But I sure put my time in. When I first opened the stores I worked 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, probably for the first 2 years. It was very difficult. Now we have grown so that our kitchen runs 24 hours, each task is delegated and I can oversee production, develop recipes and train them and focus on marketing the brand.

How do you handle those long hours around high calorie foods and stay so healthy? I just joined the Fitness Collective, where a personal trainer holds ME accountable for showing up (exactly what I need). I start on Friday!

What’s the highest compliment a customer has ever given your desserts?
Food and Wine called Sweet Melissa’s “one of the best pastry shops in all of New York” in an article they did about me and the shop. That was a very nice compliment. For customers, I keep a scrapbook of all the nice letters and notes they send. When the business gets difficult, I open it up and start reading.

What’s your favorite dessert? Asking me to choose my favorite dessert is like asking a mother to choose between her children! All of the desserts that I make for my shop are my favorite thing of its kind.

Least favorite dessert?
I don’t like fake butter cream, the kind that’s made from shortening – I think it is gross.

Please share an easy but delicious holiday baking recipe for our readers. We love to dip pretzel rods in melted chocolate and then roll them in crushed candy canes. Refrigerate until cool. You can give them as a gift, and are so easy, even the kids can do it.

What neighborhood do you live in? Pros/Cons? I live in Cobble Hill Brooklyn. Chris and I LOVE it. Unfortunately we rent, my kitchen is terrible, and I don’t have a dishwasher, so cooking at home (which I LOVE to do) is a chore.

I am so “pro neighborhood”, someday when I buy a house I would be lucky to live in either Park Slope or Cobble Hill. I also love Brooklyn Heights, and Fort Greene /Clinton. I hope to have stores their someday. I like for my stores to be in neighborhoods, I strive for local involvement. We get a lot of donation requests, so we decided to focus on the public schools in the stores’ area. I love that mutual support.

What’s your favorite restaurant in New York at the moment? I like to support local restaurants. Right now, my favorite thing to eat is Lucalli’s pizza. The owner, Mark, and his brother are the only people who touch the pies. It is the most delicious pizza in the world.

Please share a memorable experience that you’ve had on the streets or subways of New York. There was a little old man with a pocket full of quarters on Court Street, who used to walk up and down in front of the meter maid and feed all of the meters. I loved that.

If you could change one thing about New York what would it be?