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Q & A: Zach Meloy

Chef and Co-owner of Better Half

By Lia Picard

Atlanta native Zachary Meloy became smitten with food and the restaurant world while working in Birmingham as a busboy. Eventually he and his wife, Cristina, opened a restaurant in her native Costa Rica before moving back to Atlanta. They started PushStart Kitchen, a supper club, in 2011 at the Goat Farm and built a base of loyal, hungry diners.

When they launched a 30-day Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 for a restaurant of their own, the goal was met in only a week. No longer was Meloy prepping dishes at home and cooking on a pancake griddle, but he was able to open his own brick-and-mortar restaurant, Better Half, in 2013.

The restaurant’s name is an homage to Zach and Cristina’s bond. One of his signature dishes – a creamy bowl of handkerchief pasta, wild mushrooms, porcini cream and tomato marmalade – was used to woo her. At Better Half, Meloy crafts artful dishes with a high-end touch in a laidback and welcoming setting. Restaurant Informer talked with Meloy about the transition from roving supper club to brick-and-mortar restaurant, working with his wife and changes in the fine dining landscape.

Following are edited highlights from the conversation.

RI: What was your first job in the restaurant industry?
ZM: I would say my very first job in restaurants was a job as a busboy working at Frank Stitt’s Bottega over in Birmingham. I went into it thinking well, I’m just going to get a job where I can do the least amount of work and make the most amount of money (which sounds absurd at this point now). Incredibly lazy, but I just didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

RI: What did you take away from the job?
ZM: On my first day at this job, the chef walked over and handed me a wine list and the menu, and said, “You need to learn all of this.” I looked back and said, “I think there’s been some sort of mistake. I’m a busboy.” They said, “Oh no, you need to learn this.” Their whole mentality was that their guests weren’t going to try and differentiate between a server’s assistant and a server. They were just going to grab somebody with an apron and ask a question, and they wanted whoever that got grabbed to be able to answer that question.

As I dove into learning this material, I totally fell in love. Up until that moment, for me, food was a little more about checking off a square and not really considering that we really define ourselves as human beings through the food that we eat. I was head over heels after that.

The peach wood-smoked beets with lemon horseradish yogurt, crunchy red quinoa and blueberry vinaigrette.

RI: How did you know that you wanted to make it your career, and how did you shift into cooking?
ZM: I studied Art and Spanish in college and knew that either of those were going to be career paths. I wasn’t interested in following Spanish as a language as a career path, and I had one of those classic moments after I graduated college where it felt like I was standing there holding my diploma going, “Well, great now what?” Someone looked at me and said all you ever do is talk about food. Why don’t you become a chef? I immediately enrolled at Johnson & Wales in Denver.

RI: Can you tell me about PushStart Kitchen, your supper club that preceded Better Half?
ZM: Cristina, my wife, and I had just come back from Costa Rica. We had had to close the restaurant that we had started down there at the beach after the economy took a bad turn and tourism took a hit. The town where we were shriveled up, and we were left trying to fill a void. Trying to figure out what was next, we moved here, which was kind of a homecoming for me – I’m from Atlanta originally.

The restaurant’s signature dish, silk handkerchief pasta with roasted mushrooms, porcini cream, tomato marmalade and cotija cheese.

We took jobs in the fields we had the most experience in. Mine, obviously, being restaurants. Hers being marketing, so she took the daytime hours and I ended up doing nighttime hours. We were just like two ships passing in the night. It hit this point where we knew if we didn’t do something it was just going to spin out, and we were not going to make it.

So we started this supper club as an opportunity to introduce ourselves to the Atlanta market, which is a tough market to break into. And, to also have something that felt a little like therapy. Like restaurant therapy for us, to feel like we weren’t just crossing ourselves working, trying to make other people money. We wanted to have something we felt like was ours.

We started PushStart Kitchen in June 2011 in the basement of the Goat Farm. We had no running water, one electrical socket that I had an electric pancake griddle on and a dorm room fridge, and we had a lamp and an iPod dock. We would prep everything on the other side of town in our apartment on Ponce and then drive food, dishes, linen, wine, ice, literally everything that you could possibly need to do a five-course meal for 10 strangers. We would unpack everything, serve that meal, pack all the dirty dishes back up, drive them across town, unpack, wash, and do it again.

RI: In what ways did the supper club help you with your current restaurant?
ZM: The supper club laid the foundation for this restaurant. We did the supper club for two and a half years. We started with a mailing list of about 12 people. Thirty percent of that was my family and, by the end of it, we had well over 5,000 people on our mailing list. We were feeding upwards of 100 people a week out of our apartment. We eventually moved to the Goat Farm, where we went from serving 10 people a five-course meal to serving 22 people a five-course meal. We ended up doing that four or five times a week out of our apartment.

We decided it was time for a restaurant, which we crowd- sourced through Kickstarter. I feel like that was the real measure of our success with the supper club. We had a $50,000 goal that we were trying to make in 30 days on our Kickstarter campaign, and we met it in eight. We had an overwhelming response to the work that we were doing, and that’s really what drove us into the restaurant where we are now.

RI: How is operating a brick-and-mortar restaurant different from running the supper club?
ZM: It could not be any more different. It’s been an adventure to try and maintain that original spirit from the supper club while running the brick and mortar. There are a lot of pros and cons when you’re doing the comparison. I, for example, was doing everything out of the grocery store when I was doing the supper club, and now I have purveyors. We’ve developed a really great relationship with the folks who are bringing us the food so that I don’t have to go and carry in 400 pounds of groceries anymore. That’s all being brought, basically, right to the refrigerator.

And, honestly, just being able to really project who we are. In doing the supper club, everything was a little more on the underground side, and it’s really hard to get out and advertise something that’s really just a project out of your living room. Having the restaurant was really an opportunity for us to have a bit more of a broader scope in being able to interact with more people.

We’ve left the kitchen open in the restaurant here intentionally so that we could really have a high level of connectivity with our guests, which is something that we really valued from the supper club. The overhead in having a brick-and-mortar restaurant goes way up, obviously, and just having to make sure that you’re constantly filling seats to make sure that you’re able to pay your bills, pay the staff, pay the people who are making it all happen, so there’s a little more stress involved in having the brick- and-mortar scenario. But at the end of the day, it’s been amazing to have that kind of natural progression.

RI: How is Cristina involved in the restaurant now?
ZM: At this point, Cristina has taken a little bit more of the marketing, behind-the-scenes approach because we now have two beautiful daughters. They’re two and five, so they need constant support. So Cristina, because of the restaurant, has been able to step aside from being the front-of-the-house presence and being more of the marketing and day-to-day clerical stuff.

The strawberry and cream cake, with lavender ice cream, pink peppercorn meringue and strawberry glass topped with borage flowers.

RI: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for Georgia’s restaurant industry right now?
ZM: I think that one big thing we’re actually just seeing nationally is that it’s really hard to find staff. With having this glut of culinary schools and television programming, I think that young cooks coming up now don’t realize what a grueling career path this is. In a lot of ways, it’s very thankless, and your payment, a lot of times, has to come in other ways.

We work really, really, really hard to perfect what we do and to communicate a vision, and I think that there has been this idea that you just go to culinary school and graduate and you’re automatically the chef of a big, fancy restaurant, and there’s so much more that goes behind that. I think that we’re seeing there’s a lack of dedication to the cause.

I also feel like we’re still dealing with Georgia, and really just the South in general, we’re still a very conservative region. There’s a lot of folks who really want to cling to what’s traditional or what’s “authentic,” and folks don’t always want to branch out and try new things. You’re really wanting to open a restaurant that’s just going to be a knockout.

Everybody opens a new Southern restaurant where they serve shrimp and grits, or they do Tex-Mex or you get chips and cheese, and I think we’re forced to play it safe in the restaurant world in order to try. … As much as we love what we do, obviously, at the end of the day, we want to pay the bills. Since folks are a little timid to try new things, there is this pattern where a lot of the food ends up being exactly the same over and over again. I think that’s a frustration that needs to be faced, and we have to figure out creative ways to get people to open up and try new things.

RI: Your restaurant is a high-end meets casual hybrid. How do you think fine dining has changed in recent years?
ZM: I think what you’re starting to see is that fine dining is really being condensed. Reduced. There’s a lot of the extra pomp and circumstance that is being pared away. Chefs and restaurants are looking at what makes an experience a fine-dining experience. What are the elements that you have to have to have a fine dining experience, and what are the things that are unnecessary? What are the things that you can shave away to get down to the core of the fine dining experience?

You’re starting to see less waiters in tuxedos and white linen tablecloths and tableside Caesar salad preparations because there’s a lot of these things that are there because they’ve been there since forever, but maybe they’re not necessary anymore and that people are starting to take a little more of a contemporary approach.

So I guess that’s where we are. Modern fine dining. For us, our goal was always to try and present something in a fine dining way on the plate. We were looking for kind of a fine dining presentation, but we wanted the overall atmosphere to be as relaxed as possible, which is tough. A lot of people don’t get it. They don’t understand, because they get our room is pretty noisy, and it’s small, and there’s a lot of elements that have come from our home since the restaurant came from a supper club in our house, but then they’re presented with a plate of food that is a little more on the artistic side. It throws people for a loop.

Most people really love it, but every once in a while we’ll get some folks who are a little behind the times who just outright don’t get it, but that’s our job. We’re missionaries.

RI: What are some trends that you’re seeing in the restaurant industry?
ZM: For the longest time, everyone wanted ingredients that were far flung and from other parts of the world, the other side of the planet. Everyone was really excited about being able to eat a strawberry in February and being able to get a December watermelon. I think that chefs now are really starting to head in the opposite direction and really embrace both seasonality and hyper-local food.

RI: Why did you decide to stop serving brunch at Better Half, and do you think you’d ever bring it back?
ZM: Because no one came. We would do like 12 people for brunch, and we would work a busy Saturday night. We would leave at 1:00 a.m., and we would have to be in the next morning at 8:30 a.m. to cook for 12 people and just nobody came. So we quit.

I wouldn’t [bring it back]. It’s not worth it. As much as I like it, and I really loved the food that we were doing, our neighborhood that we’re in [West Midtown] is a little bit of a strange neighborhood.
Brunch tends to be the local neighborhood set that holds up the brunch service. Look at a place that’s known for brunch. Murphy’s, for example, that’s within walking distance for everybody in a really great, affluent neighborhood. The neighborhood where we are at, Home Park, is definitely coming up, especially with all of the development. Everyone’s growing in a westerly fashion right now, but we’re surrounded by college kids that I just don’t think are interested in that brunch market.

RI: Why do you think it’s important to participate in tasting events (i.e. Wrecking Barn’s Barn Bash)?
ZM: I think that there’s a couple of reasons. First of all, I love what Wrecking Bar and Wrecking Barn are doing. It ties back to what I was just talking about in a scenario where they, without question,
they could order everything from everywhere else and instead they decided to focus their attention on Georgia. And to focus their attention on local, and to really embrace what the south has to offer.

For me as a cook and for me as a restaurant owner and for me, honestly, as just someone here from Atlanta, it’s just an amazing opportunity for me to step out of my comfort zone, which is basically working in my own kitchen. It’s really easy to isolate yourself, and I really do feel like we bene t a lot from building a network, or a community, of cooks, of restaurant workers, of bar keepers, sommeliers, so that we can all learn. at was a great opportunity to get together with some of my favorites in Atlanta and, more than anything else, to just get to hang out and learn about what they’ve got going on there on the farm.

RI: What do you cook for yourself when you’re not in the restaurant kitchen?
ZM: I’m on a blueberry Frosted Mini-Wheats kick right now, to be honest. That’s the true irony of being a cook in a lot of ways. There’s not always a lot of time to eat. I like to cook for my family at home on my days off, but it tends to be pretty simple. We eat Costa Rican food at the house. Cristina’s Costa Rican, so lots of rice and beans, grilled meat. We use very simple vegetable preparations and fruit.

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