This is part two of my chat with J. Michael Melton, exec chef of Zydeco's. Part one of our interview ran in this space yesterday.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I eat at Tom's Home Cookin' once a week. It reminds me of my elementary-school cafeteria, except Ms. Eleonora isn't there to say "There ya go, baby" -- and give me an extra milk. Shells and Sauce is my neighborhood joint, and I love to go there when I get the time. I have a requirement-slash-resolution for 2012, which includes getting out more and actually visiting the restaurants I read so much about.
Favorite restaurant in America: MILA, in New Orleans. Co-chefs Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing are amazing. I ate here on my road trip to reconnect with the South before this project, and I have to say that it was my favorite meal of the trip. The meal -- simple, fresh, excellent renditions of classic Southern dishes with French influences -- just stood out. I honestly can't wait to go back.
Last restaurant you visited: Rioja. The food was killer, and the staff is on point.
Which chef in Denver/Boulder do you most respect? There are a lot of chefs out there who I respect, each for a different reason. I've worked for a lot of them, and I respect each one of them for letting me cook in their kitchen and showing me their ways. James Mazzio, Sean Kelly, Jean-Philippe Failyau, Justin Cucci and Daniel Asher were all good to me, and I've learned things from each of them that I'll always take with me. It's always refreshing to sit on the other side of things as a guest in someone else's restaurant, especially when you know exactly how hard it was to pull off what they pull off. Shout-out to all the independent restaurants out there: It's a tough gig, and when I sit down at a place and get straight-up taken care of, it pushes me to do the same at my place.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: It's hard to say since I come from such a small town. I'm sure there could be improvements, because there's always room for improvement, but I think Denver is steadily evolving in the culinary world and growing like a weed -- pun intended.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Crappy barbecue joints. Bad barbecue is against my religion, and trust me: Barbecue is a religion. There are so many of them out there and yet so few to talk about. I haven't been to all of them, but I've been to enough to know that this ain't barbecue country. I'd love to do some great barbecue in Denver one day.
Favorite dish on your menu: Tomato pie. It's a new rendition of an old family classic, created with housemade dough, layered tomatoes, garlic, fresh herbs, house-smoked Fontina and balsamic chicory gastrique. It's just one of those things that I grew up eating, refashioned with a few twists of my own.
What do you cook at home that you never cook at the restaurant? Does cereal count? That's usually all there is at my house, and I buy several boxes at a time. I get big with barbecue when Jazz in the Park comes around -- City Park is across the street from my place, so we camp out. Last year, our group just kept getting bigger and bigger. I break out the grill for several hours before the music gets started, temper the heat and throw down some wood chips and a Boston butt, sometimes two or three. Then I throw down the John Boos butcher block, grab my pair of cleavers and get to choppin'. People get so nervous when they see you double-fisting the beer and whiskey, and then moments later you're double-fisting cleavers. Nervousness subsides when you hand them a Carolina barbecue-sauce-slathered pork sandwich. I like to share.
Favorite food from your childhood: My family was really into cooking, even before they started their catering business. In fact, that's exactly how they got into it. I remember coming home from school and there would always be a cake of cornbread, or a plate of fatback that had been rendered -- and sometimes both. Hot cornbread, cold milk, a bowl and a spoon takes me back. It was the appetizer to the meal, and the only thing that wouldn't get me in trouble before dinner. My "pa-pa" would pull up in his red truck, and I couldn't wait to sit on the porch and eat cornbread and milk, along with a few slices of fatback. When I was a kid, it was all about being like "pa-pa." He liked cornbread and milk, and so did I; he liked fatback, and so did I.
Guiltiest food pleasure: Candy bars and/or soda. They usually go hand in hand. I don't drink sodas as often as I eat candy bars, but I destroy candy bars. Seriously, I can't stay away. I would mainline candy bars if it were possible. Even worse, I don't have a favorite, so I'm plagued with decision-making in the line of the grocery store or candy aisle at a corner store. If I can't choose, I get one of each. Thankfully, Colorado doesn't have Cheerwine (a Carolina soda) readily available, or I'd have to say soda. My only substitute is orange soda, which does the trick between trips back home.
Weirdest customer request: I've had the same request at two different places where I've worked, and both times, I scratched my head. French onion soup -- no onions, please. What? I just don't get it.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Chitlins. I've had them a few times, and every time they were different but equally weird. It's not that I didn't like them, but they're not something I can't live without.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Cooking ain't hard to do -- it's just easy to fuck up. Don't try to perfect a recipe on the first try. Shoot for the third time to achieve perfection. Take the pitfalls and mistakes from the first attempt into your second -- and try to improve your technique. On your third attempt, own it! Side note: Don't waste your money on cheap or useless equipment; rather, invest your money wisely in durable, quality equipment -- but only if you're serious about cooking. Free tip: You can only mop as good as you sweep.
One book that every chef should read: A book that's done me well in this profession is How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less, by Nicholas Boothman. There are so many relationships you have to build when running a kitchen/restaurant -- the endless list of contact with people includes everyone from owners and employees, purveyors and handymen, guests and critics, and so many others. Things like body language, tone, and a ton of other factors play a part in our business. How often do you get more than ninety seconds to tell someone how much you appreciate their time or their patronage? I want people to know how much I appreciate their company, and I even read weird books to find out how to convey that in a proper fashion -- in ninety seconds or less, of course.
What's your favorite knife? I'm currently rocking a MAC pro ultimate 10.25-incher, and I love it. However, I'm waiting on my handmade ten-inch Damascus from Quentin Middleton of Middleton Made Knives. My "FarMor," short for my father's mother, brought me a garden-and-gun magazine with an article about Quentin. I checked him out, and he's making some gorgeous, highly functional hand-forged blades. He's also a Low Country South Carolina boy. I'm going with an Amboyna Burl handle. Burl is one of a kind because the grain is distorted due to how it grows, making every piece different from the next. There's something about being able to call a bladesmith on the phone and talk about a knife he's gonna rock out just for you; it's just so personal. I can't wait to get it.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? The one and only Newcastle. It's always been my favorite, although I've had a few different sour beers lately that I love. I had a Cantillon a week or so ago and I was floored, but I'll always go back to Newcastle. The thirty-day mini kegs of Newcastle are awesome -- and they float.
Favorite celebrity chef: Anthony Bourdain. He's a smart cat who I'd love to hang out with. I haven't really traveled outside the United States, except for a trip to Mexico when I was younger and a stay in St. Martin, so I'd love to check out some of the places he's eaten and been to, especially the villages, food carts and tiny corners of the culinary world.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Aw, hell, if I hear stupid, I just stop listening. And if you have the remote, turn the channel. There.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? John Besh, aka "John the Besh." I've only been to Restaurant August, in New Orleans, but the guy is on fire. His style at August is a lot different from mine, but he's doing things with ingredients I'm familiar with -- and he's killin' it.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I'm still young, so no one thing stands out yet. However, this interview is a big deal for me. I follow your Chef and Tell interviews closely, and it's great to be a part of it. Interviews, photo shoots, TV spots, rubbing elbows with Gabby Gourmet -- those are all things I didn't expect, and things that are still very new to me. Oh, and thanks for putting my gumbo from Bistro One in your 100 Favorite Dishes last year. I come from a small town, and to be in a big city and get any recognition of any kind has just been surreal. I definitely worked to get here, but I'm doing what I love, which is a blessing.
If you weren't a chef, what would you be? A porn star. Ha! Joking, Mom. I've always wanted to know what it was like to be a homicide detective. I'm not sure how I'd like the desensitization of death, but I think my attention to detail would help me out a lot.
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What's one thing about you or your restaurant that people would be surprised to know? We had exactly three days to fill out credit apps, get food in and design our menu. This project already had legs when I came on, but a complete menu change, given the time constraints, was a definite challenge. Oh...and we have no gas in this kitchen. We started with four induction burners, and an oven that's half the size of a conventional oven. We have no hood, just a small make-up air vent, so I was able to add a two-by-two flat top, a self-contained fryer, a smoker and one more induction burner. It still ain't much, but we do great in this tiny box. I love my kitchen folks -- all two of them.
What's next for you? Zydeco's starts lunch in March, then Mardi Gras and Denver Restaurant Week. We eventually plan to build the kitchen out, which is something I'm looking forward to. I can't wait to cook with some fire again. Beyond that, I'm kicking around several ideas for other concepts, but I'm not putting the cart before the horse, because my heart and soul lies with this project. Still, I can't help but churn ideas in the back of my head.
Last meal before you die: Cornbread and milk to start, fried chicken with Texas Pete, a baked sweet potato, green beans, my great grandmother's skillet corn and a bottomless sweet tea with no lemon. If it's my last meal, throw in a tray of blue crab and toss me a mallet.