Mel Melton

Editor's Note: Mel Melton is joining the staff as a news correspondent at The Caswell Messenger this week. Melton has a wide range of experience both in music and cooking. He will be sharing different styles of cooking and how it can compliment local favorites. He will also be covering area events. Here is his story straight from the source!

Let me introduce myself. 

I am Roy “Mel” Melton, Jr. also known as “The Zydeco Chef” and “Cookie Boy” affectionately nicknamed by my former bandmates, C.J. Chenier and Sonny Landreth. I followed the path of two careers for three decades: one as a musician and the other as a professional chef and culinary consultant. I often am quoted stating, “The food and music of Acadiana have always been inseparable for me.”

A North Carolina native from Gastonia, I went to Lafayette, Louisiana in the summer of 1969 to visit a college friend and play a little music before going back to UNC. My plans changed when I fell in love with the rich culture and physical beauty of southwest Louisiana. I landed in Lafayette, LA and began playing in a band he co-founded with Sonny Landreth, the Lafayette slide guitar-playing superstar and recorded with Sonny’s on his first record, Blues Attack, in 1978, featuring C.J. Chenier on saxophone and Buckwheat Zydeco on the Hammond organ.

To help support my musical career, I took a series of jobs starting low on the totem pole as dishwasher and eventually discovered a new talent and another part of the Cajun lifestyle: Louisiana cooking. Over the next fifteen years, I honed my musical and cooking skills, eventually becoming a well-known Cajun chef. At the same time, I was becoming known as a singer and a harmonica player who created a Zydeco style of playing that was unknown at that time.

In addition to playing with Sonny, I was frequently on stage with the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, and spent a year touring with the internationally known “Cajun Rocker” Zachary Richard. I also spent some time cooking and playing music in Austin, TX but that will have to be a whole different chapter. 

In 1982, Sonny Landreth and I formed the band Bayou Rhythm, and eventually added C.J. Chenier to the lineup. The band recorded Way Down in Louisiana in 1985. A song on that record “Congo Square”, was co-written by me and Sonny and has since been recorded by The Neville Brothers, John Mayall, Tom Principato and featured on several TV shows. Bayou Rhythm toured heavily and headlined national shows and opened for legendary musicians including Ray Charles, B.B. King, Dr. John, The Neville Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dave Edmunds, and The Fabulous Thunderbirds.

In 1986, I left the band to pursue a full-time chef career in Chicago. In the first month there, as chef at Capers, I won the prestigious Grand Prize at the Rolls Royce/Krug Champagne Invitational Chef Competition. The restaurant was named one of the top ten new Chicago restaurants of 1987. I frequently did cooking demonstrations and appeared on various Chicago radio and television programs and was also a featured chef at the Chicago Jazz Festival, The American Cancer Society Christmas Gala, and Mardi Gras at the Limelight Club.

Moving back home to North Carolina in 1989, where I continued cooking at numerous events and cooking schools and by opening several restaurants including Carolina Brewery, and worked as the Executive Chef at the R. David Thomas Center at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business. 

In 1995, Mel Melton & the Wicked Mojos was formed, and in 1998 recorded Swampslinger, for New Moon Music, a Chapel Hill-based blues label. The CD was named one of the top ten blues CD of the year by The Washington Post.  Mojo Dream followed in 2000, on the Nashville-based Nightfly label, and it was awarded “Zydeco record of the year” by Real Blues Magazine.

Then my first cookbook, Cookie Boy, the Authentic Cajun Recipes of Mel Melton, was published by Kartobi Press of Farmington, New Mexico. Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse, my third CD was released in 2005 right in the middle of Hurricane Katrina on Louisiana Red Hot Records and features guest appearances by Sonny Landreth and Trisha Yearwood’s excellent guitarist Johnny Garcia. I describe the band’s sound “Mojo Music.” It’s like the food. Down in Louisiana everyone cooks, and they like to stir it up their own way. 

In 2007, I had the opportunity to open Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse in Greenwood Commons Shopping Center in south Durham, NC. I really wanted to focus on bringing in first class original musical talent on tour through the south eastern states. The food at Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse was recognized as being the place to get authentic Cajun food outside of Louisiana. Sadly, Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse closed in the summer of 2014, but I will continue to spread my love of Louisiana, its music, and its culture. So here we are! 

It's true that everyone has become so much more food conscious and interested in different cuisines from here in the US, as well as international dishes. Being a native of NC, and from a large family, cooking and eating were important. It was a country group, and the cooking relied on food from the garden, raised chickens and pigs, and fish and game. My mother had five sisters, and they all cooked, and each had specific dishes they were known for. I liked them all.

My world changed when I visited a college friend who lived in Lafayette Louisiana, known as the Cajun capital. The entire cultural difference was dramatic, including the food. Now, we're all familiar Cajun classics like gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and other dishes. Then, in 1969, it was rare to be familiar with Cajun cooking (and music) outside of Louisiana, and parts of Texas. The difference was impressive. So much so, that I moved down there, and became a part of the culture. I would like to introduce you to that same culture by sharing my experience in Louisiana and years of band life on the road through my recipes and songs. 

One thing I noticed was although there was a huge difference in the food, the ingredients were the same as we in NC were accustomed to: fresh vegetables, chickens and hogs, fish and game, and even some techniques. For instance, roux, a thickener for soups, stews and various dishes, made with flour and some type of oil, including butter. A roux is a base for things like cream gravy and sauces, the difference being the color, heat the oil and add an amount of flour. You can use everything from bacon grease to butter, but we don't usually cook it until it turns a dark color like chocolate. The result in the end is the same, but the flavors are different. If you can make a cream gravy, you can make a roux. Cajuns cook it until it turns a specific color, peanut butter colored, roux rouge, which is a deep red, and dark roux for gumbo, which takes patience and it is easy to let it go too far and then you have a hot smoking mess. 

Cajuns also like to BBQ, mostly pigs and hogs. I know here we're divided with east/ west style BBQ, and both have their fans. Usually whole hogs are slow cooked on a pit, or cooker, the difference being the sauce. Although some Cajuns use these methods, they also have a unique way of cooking, where they build a 3-sided tin shed, and mount a chain form the top.  The hog is split in half, as we do, but it's hung on the chain from the head. A fire is built in the back of the shed, and the hog is turned as it cooks, until all of it is ready. That takes hours, but so do the other methods. At some point someone named it a Cajun microwave, and that stuck. The sauce is more Texas style, tomato based, and slightly thick. It’s also spicy.  Also, just like here, Cajuns like to cook outside and fish fries are popular. They also specialize in crawfish boils. We don't do those, but they are tasty. The similarities with our native foods and techniques are there, but so are the differences. That's what makes cooking and eating fun.

Through my years in the food and music business, I have met many famous and important movers and shakers. I will save that for next week!

If anyone has a question, or wants a recipe, contact me at papamojo@gmail.com.