New Southern Kitchens: Zach Meloy, Better Half

A young couple hosts supper clubs, with growing frequency, where elaborate food crafted from a base of incredible Southern produce is served in an exciting mishmash of Latin and New South cuisine.  Flash forward to a Kickstarter campaign, and the "project" of Zach and Cristina Meloy,  PushStart Kitchen, is no longer a labor of love but a soon-to-open Atlanta restaurant, which will go by the name Better Half.

Zach, the chef behind the project, combines technical skill honed by years behind the stove, a love for both Southern and Latin culture, and an artist's eye for the plate.  The food could taste half as good as it looks and blow most places out of the water. Example one: Zach's version of shoofly pie, splendid in its fried custard glory.

I am so thrilled to present a sneak peek behind this artist/chef/friend's journey. Read on for a chance to get to know what will surely be one of the South's new household names (in households that prefer wine over soda and chicharrones over chips, at least).

We met when we both worked under Frank Stitt. Describe a bit your education/career trajectory, both before and after.

At that point, I had graduated University with a degree in Spanish and Fine art. I had completed all of my classes at culinary school (JWU Denver) and I was doing my internship. I didn't really know what my trajectory was. I was just trying to absorb as much as I could. I remember that from the cold stations, I was just in awe of the guys hammering it out on the hot line and my only goal at that point, was to be strong enough to step in front of the stove. When I finished there (Bottega) I went back to Denver to tie up any loose ends. Soon after that, I moved to Central America. There, I spent five years cooking, eating and learning about the Latin kitchen. I was amazed at the natural overlaps between the cuisine of Latin America and that of the American South. That is now where most of my focus lies.

(See this wildflower honey tres leches cake with tamarind sorbet, pickled and salted peach, and the ubiquitous spanish snack, the galleta maria.)

When does your restaurant open? What can we expect?

We're hopping to get the restaurant up and running before the end of the year. It's a very small space with room for 42 seats, ten of which will be directly at a kitchen bar. Our menu will be a small focused one that will focus on "new world" cuisine. It will change depending on season/availability of product. More than anything else, I want to have a high level of availability to my guests. I always hated working in a place where I couldn't even see anyone eat the food I had just taken 12 hours to prep. Now, I'll be able directly interact with my diners.

You started with dinners in your home. Was a restaurant always the final goal?

When we started PushStart, I didn't have a defined goal. Our options emerged after a few months of cooking. Initially, we used the supper club as an opportunity to recover from the loss of our restaurant in Costa Rica. When the economy took such a strong downturn, in 2009, we were forced to close and regroup. We moved to Atlanta, where I'm from originally, and took jobs working for other people. PushStart was a way to feel like we were still able to work for ourselves. We soon saw that the harder we worked, the stronger we got. We appreciated it more and took much less for granted. Eventually, we had enough momentum that we hit a fork in the road: take what we had saved and head back to CR or stay here in ATL, put down some roots, and try and open a restaurant here. We felt like just moving back to CR would nullify the seriously hard work and sacrifice we had made to get PushStart off the ground. In the end, the choice was made for us, and we couldn't be happier.

What has been a highlight of the journey?

Without question: our Kickstarter campaign. What an amazing experience to see the community in ATL come together and contribute to our baby business. From the beginning, we wanted to make sure that our place was a community driven restaurant and what better a way to fund a project that through the neighborhood that had helped inspire it. Having such successful campaign was a verification that we had made the right choice to stay here in Atlanta.

How did you get the name Better Half?

The name out our restaurant in CR was "Media Naranja" which translated directly means "half an orange." Figuratively, it's also your "better half" or "the half that makes you whole." Since Cristina, my wife, and I wanted this to be a family restaurant we wanted to acknowledge that we couldn't do this on our own. So effectively, she's MY better half and our guests are collectively OUR better half. The work that we do feeding people makes us whole.

All of your dishes look amazing, and require significant prep, like this lemon ricotta tortellini + smoked pig tail broth:

which had to start somewhere, such as simmering on a low flame with pig tails and charred onions:

What is one (or two or three) of the dishes you've created that you are most proud of?

This is a difficult question for a chef to answer because they are inevitably a perfectionist and nothing is ever perfect. I read a quote once that said to "view your own work as though it were the work of your enemy. The minute you view your work with admiration is the minute you cease to progress." I am proud of the fact that in over two and a half year's worth of dinners we've never repeated a dish. Every menu is unique in and of itself and will never be served again.

What is one thing I will never eat at your restaurant?

A cheeseburger.

What are your major inspirations for your cooking?

Since we're constantly bombarded by life, my source for inspiration is always changing. I think it just comes from being aware of my surroundings (and the fact that I just can't stop thinking about food) and letting your mind drift. Right now, my main goal is to simplify. It's easy for a com to want to make something more elegant by making it more ornate. Now it's time to start x-ing out elements and pare back. I'm really drawn to the more contemporary food presentations while trying to develop my own style, which is a lot easier said than done.

Let's be honest, you have an eye for plating, as this sweet corn crepe with charred fig leaf ice cream, ginger tapioca, black fig molasses, and malted banana milk suggests:

Why do you think that is? Do you have a special process when you go to plate a new dish?

My biggest drive is contrast. I want there to be visual, textural and flavor contrasts on every plate. I always do my best to pay attention to how something goes on the plate in comparison to the other components of the dish. Crispy next to soft, acidic next to fatty, bright next to deep. While obviously a dish needs to taste composed, I think it's important for it to look appealing. More than anything, this is a chance for me to paint with food.

Please tell me/other young cooks how I can grow up to be just like you.

I mean, in the end all you can do is cook and care about the people you cook for. The rest just makes room for itself. Ben Shewry said "cook with all your heart. Leave nothing behind." I can't think of a better philosophy than that.

You have one meal left before you die. Where do you eat? (Sorry, I know this questions sucks.)

I'd have one more dinner at Saison in SF. The best meal I've ever eaten in my life.

Support and follow this fascinating young chef on PushStart Kitchen's facebook and twitter. ¡And eat at their restaurant! Top photo by  Jason Wallis.