Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
The first time Peter Rudolph, the Executive Chef of Medera, the Michelin starred restaurant at the Rosewood Sand Hill in Menlo Park, came across Mellisa Root's resume, Root was in New York, working at Per Se. The timing wasn't right for the two to connect, but just over a year later, their paths crossed again. Medera was looking for a new pastry chef, and, to clinch the deal, they were thinking about chocolate.
"I've wanted to do my own chocolate line forever," Root says on the day I meet her on the sunny patio outside of Madera. Forever means since the beginning of her career, when she was working at the Swan and Dolphin resort in Orlando. The executive pastry chef there started his own chocolate line and Root was called in to help. She quickly found the process "very zen. The pastry kitchen is super busy and stressful. When you enter the world of chocolate, it's on its own time zone. It waits for no one."
At Madera, Root has both launched the first in-house chocolate program and revamped the pastry department. But it's the chocolates we talk about first. "I'm constantly working on different flavors and it's so much fun. There's no other word to describe it," she says. The process lets Root get creative, changing the flavors and fillings according to what's in season or finally creating confections she's been dreaming about for years.
Take the mulberry bush bon bon, one of Root's favorites. "Kevin Lynch has a mulberry tree bush vineyard, and I buy berries from him every week during the season." Next week, in honor of summer, she's trying a take on s'mores. "I'm thinking graham cracker with a layer of homemade vanilla marshmallow and dark chocolate ganache." She'll cut those bon bons into squares and smoke them individually before enrobing them in chocolate. The rest of this month's chocolate flavors include maple pecan, cinnamon caramel, pinecone apricot, cayenne pepper, elderflower, smoked tobacco, cherry almond, Pernod, and key lime pie.
This kind of constant creative output requires a schedule. The first week of the month, Root does 4-5 molded bon bons in different shapes and colors. The second week, she does enrobed chocolate squares. The third week, she does molded again, picking two flavors from the two weeks prior and introducing two to three new flavors. The last week of the month is the same, but with enrobed chocolates. It's a three day process to enrobe the ganache, and a two day process to do the molded bon bons. It's all done on site in the Medera kitchens.
On top of that, Root has also revamped the pastry program, changing the dessert menu to feature seasonal dishes which change every few weeks. Her vision is to "add some whimsy, to draw from childhood. I want the diner to have fun."
A good expression of that would be the caramelized quinoa that garnishes the Blueberry Gingerbread Cake. "The dish is inspired by my mom's coffee cake, so I felt it needed that streusel element. I wanted to stay away from nuts, but add some crunch, so I turned to quinoa." She tried air-popping the quinoa, but it wasn't quite right. Then she made a quinoa brittle, which was too sweet. Finally she cooked the quinoa with spices like star anise and cinnamon, then put it in the dehydrator overnight. "That was it. It adds those spiced, crunchy bits to the cake."