This is part one of my chat with J. Michael Melton, exec chef of Zydeco's. Part two of our interview will run in this space tomorrow.
I got the gift of the Southern double name," drawls J. Michael Melton in his very Southern accent. "My daddy calls me James, sometimes Jamey, occasionally Mike, more often Mikey, and me and my family? We're from South Carolina, and in South Carolina, we eat. And we eat well."
In fact, Melton, the executive chef of Zydeco's, has never been far from the kitchen. "My mom didn't just cook for the family -- she cooked for freakin' everyone, making huge pots and pans of everything like cornbread, vegetable soup, beef stew, pork chops and potato soup. You could say that food was a huge part of my upbringing," says Melton. And after his parents accepted an offer to cater the wedding of a friend, the catering requests came in earnest, convincing the family to start its own company, which they did, in a hundred-year-old lumber mill. J. Michael Melton flourished there, working alongside his parents through college. "It was absolutely a family affair, and I worked hard, paying into my parents' plan," he quips, then adds that he also did time in another family restaurant -- a barbecue joint owned by his uncle. "It was all about food, man."
His first kitchen stint away from the brood was in an Italian restaurant, where he worked as a plate scaper, quickly moving up to busser duty. "I was so good at it that they kicked the other busser out and gave me the whole restaurant," says Melton. "A customer came up to me and said that I was the fastest, quietest busser she'd ever seen -- and then she handed me $5. I was so taken aback that someone had noticed, and after that, I vowed to never leave the restaurant industry."
And he didn't, eventually moving to Denver to attend Johnson & Wales and work the restaurant circuit. "I did an accelerated degree at Johnson & Wales and was line-cooking at Via, alongside chef James Mazzio," says Melton, who would have happily stayed there had Via not shuttered. "James called me and said, 'Hey, dude, you ain't got a job. Via is closing.'" He'd have another opportunity to work with Mazzio when he became executive chef at the Icehouse -- but that restaurant closed, too. Bereft of a kitchen, Melton was hanging out at home on the couch, plotting his next move, when his phone buzzed. It was veteran chef and restaurateur Sean Kelly, who had recently opened LoHi Steakbar. "I was all like, 'Get out of here. There's no way this is Sean Kelly. Really? Sean Kelly? Calling me? Whoa.'"
Melton was back in business, running the kitchen at LoHi, but while he loved working with Kelly, he wanted more. "I wanted to do more, be more, just do, do, do," he remembers, "and it wasn't going to happen at LoHi fast enough for me, so I left." He landed on the line as the exec chef of Bistro One, where, he recalls, he was fired because he wouldn't share. "Alex Waters, the owner, had asked me for all my recipes -- my recipes -- to do costing," he says, "but he already had the costing and the bottom line on everything else, so I told him to kiss my ass, that I wasn't stupid -- and three months later, to the day, I was fired and escorted out, allegedly for economic reasons." Waters's parting advice? "Next time your employer asks for your recipes, you should give them to him," Melton remembers him saying.
Melton split for Park Burger in Highland, followed by a stint at Linger and then Zydeco's last fall. "I looked at the space, and there were things that I saw in this place that could be elevated, and it's my kind of food," he recalls. "It was exactly what I wanted -- the perfect fit." In the following interview, Melton weighs in on destroying candy bars, shittin' and spittin' up, and the woman who cried buckets because of his pork chops and gravy.
Six words to describe your food: Soulful, colorful, tradition-inspired, comforting and just me.
Ten words to describe you: Meticulous, intense, genuine, obsessive, chivalrous, expressive, romantic, old-school and whole-soul.
Favorite ingredient: Patience. Every kitchen should take a moment to ensure perfection on the plate. Even when you're getting crushed, you've got to take a step back, breathe and plan every single move you make in order to obtain the perfect groove. You have a millisecond to do this, and it takes patience. When someone burns a sauce, drops a finished steak to the ground, does the wrong thing at the wrong time or just makes a mistake, it's all about patience. Everyone is here for the same reason, and you have to nurture that -- which all comes down to patience.
Most overrated ingredient: It's impossible to determine. Sure, there are things that people go apeshit over, but it's completely subjective. There are lots of things I've tried in the past that I thought were overrated, but then a restaurant, recipe or chef showed me the light, making me admit that, wow, I never knew this could be this so good. Ever happen to you?
Most underrated ingredient: I don't think about an ingredient being underrated until I try it somewhere and it blows me away. Or consider another scenario: How many dishes have you eaten where you usually like an ingredient but just not in that dish? See?
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Green tomatoes from Fresh Guys. They're picked off the vine as soon as I order them, so they're just sexy. From the fried greens to the chow-chow, they're a quality product.
Best recent food find: Parsley root from Fresh Guys Produce. I always ask: Whaddaya got for me to play with? Recently, they showed up with parsley root. It's the first time I've ever seen or played around with it. I pickled it and I fell in love, but then I passed it to the bartenders as a Bloody Mary garnish because I can't stay away from it.
Favorite spice: I love my barbecue rub, which has more than twenty spices in it, all fresh-ground. From smoking meats and making marinades to sprinkling on chips or on the rim of a Bloody Mary, it's a great all-purpose rub.
One food you detest: Mustard. I don't know why, but I've never been able to stomach it. I use it in sauces, marinades and the like, but straight up, no apologies, it ain't for me. And it's really strange, because while I may dislike other things, nothing makes me scrape my tongue in disgust like mustard.
One food you can't live without: Country ham. When I came to Denver, I searched and searched for it, but everywhere I went, country ham simply meant bone-in, and it was the same old baked ham as everywhere else. That's city ham! There's nothing like a bone-in 1/8-inch slice of country ham seared hard on a flattop or in a cast iron pan. I love eating the marrow last. Delicious.
Favorite music to cook by: Soul rules my kitchen. I can't pick just one artist: It would be a dead-even tie between Ray Charles and James Brown. It's great, because the music I love and our dining-room playlist are nearly one and the same. My kitchen playlist killers are Aretha Franklin, Mofro, Etta James, Otis Redding, Kermit Ruffins, North Mississippi Allstars, Sam Cooke, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Little Willie John, Trombone Shorty, Prince, Al Green and Sol Driven Train. Life is always better with my playlist cranking in the back.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: No diving in the shallow end. Actually, we don't have rules -- just understandings. Understand that if you spill something, clean that shit up. Rules are all about telling people what not to do, but knowing why you should -- or shouldn't -- do something is different: that's understanding. There's a right way, a wrong way and the best way. My staff and I are always looking for the best way. Understand what works and incorporate it. Rules are for those who always make excuses.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I have witnessed -- and been a part of -- several instances that could be classified as disasters, but one particular story comes to mind. I was working at Bistro One last year during Denver Restaurant Week, and I had gone to pick up eighty steaks and forty pounds of salmon. Everything was on ice in coolers in my car so that I could run a couple more errands on my way to the restaurant. I stopped to get my hair braided -- a ten-minute stop because the lady I go to has mad skills -- and after a successful nine-minute-and-fifty-two-second stop, I walked out to the parking lot and my car was towed. I instantly felt empty. Then came the rage. I could be out a car and make it to work, but the steaks and salmon were not coming back. I got the towing company's number off the sign and immediately started wigging out. Once I was certain I had parked legally, I was all, "Get my car to me now!" They showed up a little later, with no harm done to the product or vehicle. However, for a while there, I was close to having a major meltdown.
What's never in your kitchen? Instant grits. Grits get a bad rap, because if you use shitty grits, you'll get shitty grits. There's a lot of technique involved in making perfect grits, and, like anything else, it starts with good product. I use Carolina Plantation grits from South Carolina. They still use the old granite-stone grist mills. It's a great product.
What's always in your kitchen? Good people. My staff and I have a close relationship, and I wouldn't have it any different. There's a huge emphasis on moral character when I'm hiring staff. Integrity is hard-wired and hard to find.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Opportunity. I had the opportunity to grow up in a food-focused family and work in restaurants for most of my life. The experience of being around the business for that long has been invaluable. I've also worked for some brilliantly talented chefs in and around Denver, and it's those experiences that got me to where I am today. I gotta give special thanks to my parents, my entire family and chefs James Mazzio and Sean Kelly.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: I did a Southern-fried pork chop special at the Sonnenalp resort in Vail, and a lady who ordered it demanded to see the person who made it. I came out to the dining room, and she immediately asked where I was from. Gaffney, South Carolina, I replied. She gasped and said she was from Greenville, South Carolina, about 45 minutes up the road from Gaffney. She wanted to know everything about the pork gravy, insisting that I give her the recipe because it tasted so much like her grandmother's, who had passed away before teaching her the recipe. She started to tear up, and before I could answer, she hugged me and burst into tears. I sat with her and gave her every ingredient and every step, even the trivial ones. I still think about that experience every time I make any kind of gravy, and it still gives me a great feeling. My pops always says that if a Southerner gives you a recipe, there's always gonna be somethin' missin'. However, a sweet lady with tears in her eyes will make you bust out a recipe real quick-like.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion on food writers and social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? Only liars say they aren't affected. The restaurants we build are like our children. Nobody wants to have an ugly baby, and as precious as babies can be, they tend to shit and spit up. The bad reviews are just that: the shittin' and the spittin' up. It doesn't mean we love our children any less. I mean, it's all worth it when they look up and say "I love you," or bat their eyes to drop those big ol' crocodile tears, right? We nurse these restaurants and watch them stumble until they learn how to walk. You have no choice but to become emotionally involved, and it always hurts if you didn't deliver when you had the opportunity. Minimizing mistakes is a constant -- one of very few constants in the restaurant industry.
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Hardest lesson you've learned: I don't think I knew how to really appreciate where I came from until I moved away. It's been so hard to be away from my large and loving family, and sometimes I know I'm missing out on a lot of great things. I really hate that I've missed out on some parts of my niece and nephew's childhood, because I love them to death. But I'm devoted to bringing part of the South here to Denver, and I think there's a place for it.