In her new cookbook, entertainment exec turned self-taught chef Melina Davies shares the recipes that made her restaurant a favorite among Tinseltown who’s who
Words by MELINA DAVIES
Photography by ANN ELLIOTT CUTTING with ASHLEY BARRETT
For me, the foundation of cooking always started with family.
When I was a young child, my family was forced to emigrate at the start of the Iranian Revolution. We were among the luckier ones. My father was a partner at a large construction company that built projects for the Iranian government, and he’d heard rumblings that the revolution was near. Without hesitation, he sent my two older brothers to boarding school in Switzerland and then sent my mother and me to London. We had to leave everything behind: our family, our friends, our home, and all of the possessions that my parents had worked so hard to provide for us. Along with so many others, our lives changed dramatically.
Chef, founder of Olive & Thyme market and cafe, and author of the new Olive & Thyme cookbook MELINA DAVIES.
It was a couple of years before my father was able to leave Iran to be with my mother and me. My brothers rejoined us when we found ourselves safely in Los Angeles, a place where we had neither family nor connections and barely spoke the language. My father was hired as an engineer at Parsons International Engineering in Pasadena, and my mother, who never had worked, desperately tried to find any job she could get to help my father in rebuilding our lives. Eventually they were able to save up enough to buy a small dry-cleaning business in Beverly Hills, one that my mother still runs to this day.
My parents worked endless hours to create a new life for us. As a result, I rarely saw them. In Iran, we had every meal together and spent countless hours around the table filled with family, friends, and conversation. In Los Angeles, we were a family I barely recognized. I was a latchkey kid, often alone while my parents were at work and my brothers, 9 and 10 years older than me, were busy with their own lives. Instead of watching Scooby-Doo like my school friends, I became deeply absorbed in cooking shows, specifically those of Julia Child and Jacques Pépin. When I watched Julia and Jacques cook, I got a tiny taste of that familial warmth that I so missed from my early childhood.
Julia and Jacques weren’t my real family, of course, but they gave me an idea. And so at the age of eight, I started cooking for my family, in the hope that sharing that feeling of warmth might spread and maybe even get us around the table together again. I crossed my fingers — and it worked. Even if my parents worked until late in the evening and arrived home too tired to even talk, they were happy to see dinner waiting, proudly prepared by little me. They would join me at the table, and after a warm meal and a couple of words, shake off some of the stress from the day. Seeing their reactions as they took a moment to rest and enjoy these meals brought me so much joy and comfort. We were back together, connecting in the way I’d missed so much.
All of our recipes have been handcrafted from experiences in my life, drawn from family recipes and people who inspire me
Ever since this discovery, cooking has been my passion. I never thought, however, that it would lead to my career. After college, I found success in the movie business, but I was always drawn back to my love of food. I threw myself into cooking at home and hosting friends while becoming a loyal customer of some of L.A.’s best restaurants. Finally, in 2011, with the support of my husband, Christian, my father, and some of our closest friends, I put all of our savings into opening our first Olive & Thyme. We gave that little mom-and-pop our all and watched it grow from the blood, sweat, and tears we put into it. Nine years, two children and two restaurants later, we have created restaurants that connect the community with our passion for real relationships and great food — and the incredible and rewarding experience of blending the two together.
My philosophy behind Olive & Thyme is simple: quality ingredients that are fresh, natural, and local — all put together with love. All of our recipes have been handcrafted from experiences in my life, drawn from family recipes and people who inspire me. At Olive & Thyme, nothing is frozen; everything is made fresh daily. I don’t believe in compromising quality for my family, and that principle carries into my restaurant family as well.
A fruit platter featuring fresh mint, strawberries, blueberries, pea tendrils, dragon fruit, blackberries and more.
In those early years of hosting dinner parties and carrying on my parents’ tradition of family Sunday, which always involved good meals, I found myself in the kitchen the entire time. I came to realize that this was defeating the whole point of inviting people into my home: to connect with my guests and help them connect with one another. I had to get more organized so I could actually be present with my friends and family, and I wasn’t opposed to reducing the stress of cooking complicated recipes either. I set out to simplify some of my favorite recipes while keeping their essential flavor profiles. I figured out my shortcuts, which I share in these pages. At the heart of this is the reason for all that I do — you have to be present, or what’s the point?
I’ve always believed that no matter what you do in life, good food, wine, and music can make you a family. It’s a myth that making beautiful food and entertaining with style has to be complicated, expensive, and stressful. My goal with Olive & Thyme: Everyday Meals Made Extraordinary ($35, Prospect Park Books) is to inspire you and give you the tools to gather around the table more often with the people you love, share delicious food and wine, listen to great music, and celebrate one another and the simple pleasures of life, whether it’s a quick dinner for two or a party for two dozen.
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AVOCADO & BURRATA TOAST
In Danish culture, “toasts” are any sort of open-faced sandwich, and they’ve become a staple at home thanks to my Danish mother-in-law. So, it was a natural for me to serve them when I first opened the restaurant. Today, this toast is the single most popular dish at Olive & Thyme. What really makes it are the heirloom tomatoes — their depth of flavor, acid, and sweetness balance the earthy fat of the sliced avocado. Sea salt and olive oil marinate and brighten the creamy burrata, bringing all the flavors to life.
Avocado and burrata toast with heirloom tomatoes and balsamic vinegar.
- 2 ½-inch-thick slices sourdough bread
- 1 to 2 heirloom tomatoes
- 1 avocado
- 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
- 1 cup burrata cheese
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 4 medium basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade
Place a griddle on medium-high heat until hot (it takes 5 to 7 minutes). If you don’t have a griddle, a barbecue works great. Toast bread until it has dark brown grill marks, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip and repeat the process. When the bread is grilled, set it on a cooling rack to prevent it from steaming and getting soggy.
Remove cores from the tomatoes, cut into 6 to 8 vertical wedges, and set aside.
To thinly slice and fan the avocado, start by carefully cutting the avocado in half lengthwise by rotating your knife blade around the pit. Hold the avocado in your hands and give a quarter turn to release the pit. Carefully remove the pit and skin. Lay avocado halves vertically on a cutting board pit side down and slice each thinly. To fan a sliced avocado half, gently press on it from left to right.
Place each fanned avocado half on a piece of the toasted bread. Top with tomato wedges and drizzle 1 teaspoon balsamic over each. Arrange ½ cup burrata over the tomatoes on each toast. Drizzle olive oil to taste over the burrata and garnish with salt, pepper, and basil.
• • • • •
A modern twist on the traditional BLT, this is one of my favorite go-tos. What’s better than crunchy bacon coupled with creamy avocado and juicy heirloom tomatoes? If the bacon alone leaves you wanting more protein, add some freshly sliced chicken breast—or if you want to be really adventurous, quickly fry up some slices of bologna.
The BAT sandwich, starring candied bacon, avocado and heirloom tomato slices.
- 2 slices sourdough bread
- 2 tablespoons Best Foods mayonnaise
- ½ avocado, thinly sliced
- 1 heirloom tomato, sliced
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 4 to 5 slices candied bacon
Place a griddle on medium-high heat until hot, 5 to 7 minutes. If you don’t have a griddle, a barbecue works great. Toast bread until it has dark brown grill marks, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip and repeat the process. When the bread is grilled, set it on a cooling rack to prevent it from steaming and getting soggy.
Spread mayonnaise on both pieces of bread. Fan the avocado slices, layer with heirloom tomato dusted with salt and pepper, and then add Candied Bacon. Top with remaining toasted bread, slice sandwich diagonally, and serve.
• • • • •
SMOKED SALMON TOAST
A perfect dish for brunch, this plates beautifully with bright colors and fresh sprigs of dill. Creme fraiche offers a light and tangy alternative to often-pastier cream cheese.
Smoked salmon toast with capers, dill and thyme pickled radishes.
- 2 ½-inch-thick slices sourdough bread
- 6 tablespoons crème fraîche
- 6 ounces smoked salmon
- 1 whole avocado, thinly sliced
- 2 hard-boiled eggs, thinly sliced
- 12 Thyme Pickled Radishes (see next recipe), thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon capers
- 2 sprigs fresh dill
Place a griddle on medium-high heat until hot, 5 to 7 minutes. If you don’t have a griddle, a barbecue works great. Toast bread until it has dark brown grill marks, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip and repeat the process. When the bread is grilled, set it on a rack to prevent it from steaming and getting soggy.
Spread half the creme fraiche across each piece of toast. Layer smoked salmon on the crème fraîche. Fan the thinly sliced avocado and lay it atop the salmon. Top avocado with sliced egg, Thyme Pickled Radishes, and capers. Garnish with fresh dill. Transfer to plate and enjoy immediately.
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THYME PICKLED RADISHES
makes 1 24-ounce jar
Preserve your produce before it goes to waste. You can basically pickle anything! This recipe is for radishes; try it with carrots, onions, turnips, or any number of vegetables.
An assortment of vegetables prime for pickling.
- 2 cups red wine vinegar
- 2 cups apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 24-ounce sterile mason jar
- 8 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 big bunch radishes, skin on, washed well and thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Place vinegars and sugar in a small saucepan. Over medium flame, bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and set aside.
While waiting for the vinegars to boil, add to the mason jar 2 sprigs of thyme, then layer some radish slices. Add 2 more sprigs of thyme, and layer with more radishes. Continue this process until you’re out of thyme and radishes. Sprinkle salt on the top of the radishes and thyme, then pour all the hot liquid into the jar. Seal and set aside to cool at room temperature, then gently shake to incorporate the ingredients. Set aside in a room-temperature spot to pickle for 2 to 3 days. Once the jar is opened, refrigerate it.
If you like a little extra kick to your pickles, add a split chile pepper. You can also add any of your favorite fresh herbs as well as a bay leaf or, perhaps, some mustard seeds. Feel free to experiment — what do you have in your pantry?
Excerpted and adapted from Olive & Thyme: Everyday Meals Made Extraordinary ($35, Prospect Park Books) by Melina Davies.
Feature image: Crepes made with edible flowers, as seen in Olive & Thyme.
Sept. 10, 2020
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