J. Michael Melton, exec chef of Zydeco's, on destroying candy bars and shi*tin' and spittin' up
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.'"