$20 Dinner with Zach Meloy
The chef behind the PushStart Kitchen and the art of making something from nothing
A native of Marietta, Meloy studied ceramics and Spanish at Samford University before attending culinary school at Johnson and Wales University in Denver. Realizing that the life of a sous chef left something to be desired, Meloy moved to Central America, eventually landing in the small Costa Rican surfing town where he met his wife, Cristina.
Living the dream in many ways, the two opened a restaurant near the beach called Media Naranja, "half an orange," in English. "It also means 'what makes you whole' as in 'your other half,'" Meloy says. "That was what our restaurant was for us — a chance to start something together, to make us whole."
When the recession hit in 2008, Costa Rica's tourist economy completely dried up. The couple was faced with a gut-wrenching decision: stay open for one more month and pray they'd make enough to cover their costs or cut their losses and move back to the States. They packed up their lives and headed home. "We were desperate to get back what we had lost in the closure of our place in Costa Rica and figured the only way to do that would be to start with what we had, which was nothing, and work our way in somehow," Meloy says. The concept for PushStart Kitchen, a supper club meant to "push start" their plan to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Atlanta, was a natural fit.
A quick survey of some of the ingredients (black beans, pepitas, etc.) Meloy has selected for the meal he's planned suggests that you can take the chef out of Central America, but you can't take Central America out of the chef. "My first course was inspired by my breakfast this morning. We eat rice and beans pretty much every day for breakfast," Meloy says. Within minutes, Meloy engages in several tasks at once, juggling each one with ease. A passing train momentarily drowns out the whir of a large blender as it transforms tender, whole black beans into a purple pulp. As Meloy gradually adds hot water to the mixture through the lid of the blender, the finished product is glistening and soup-like. Elsewhere, thick strips of double-smoked bacon roast on a rack in the oven, the precious drippings caught in a shallow roasting pan below. Eventually, pillows of the Asian rice cake are fried in the leftover bacon fat, soaking up the salt and smoke like tiny sponges.
A shallot split in half sears like crazy on one end in a slightly smoking cast-iron skillet. Meloy, who teaches cooking classes at the Buford Highway Farmers Market several times a month, is an excellent explainer. "While the shallot is charring on this side, all the heat will kind of travel and radiate through all these rings and it'll steam on the inside so it will be kinda cooked and sweet and burned," Meloy says. He scoops the shallot from the pan and carefully removes an individual petal with a paring knife and dusts it with crumbled Cotija cheese.
Next, he pulls the squash and bacon from the oven and begins to plate. Meloy says that when he writes a menu, he tries to factor color into the equation as well as taste. "Everyone wants to have the best tasting food, but I want whatever it is that I'm serving, that I've taken all this time to make, to be visually striking," he says. For the former art student, plating is one of his favorite things about cooking. Meloy even keeps a sketchbook for conceptualizing what a dish will look like on the plate beforehand. "I like food to be really done up, but I also like it to have a thrown together look. It's how we define ourselves."
He scoops out halves of squash with an offset spatula, then smooths a bright-green purée of pepitas across the plate as if he were frosting a cake. "This pumpkin seed sauce might be my all-time favorite sauce to make — and eat, of course," Meloy says. "It's really good by itself, but if you take it and mix it with mayonnaise and put that on a turkey sandwich or something ... ." Tender pieces of zucchini are placed lovingly on the plate, followed by the shallot petals. Finally, thick pieces of chewy, caramelized bacon find their way between the vegetables.
The next big step for Meloy is the original goal of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. "Wherever we end up, we want to make sure that it's a community endeavor," he says. "It's important that we know where our tables and chairs and designs and logos and everything else involved in the process came from as much as the origin of our food. In the end, it's all about the people we can connect with."