Less than one year after leaving his hometown of Davenport, Iowa, Micah Melton found himself spending countless hours nightly in a sweltering-hot 10-foot underground room shaping blocks of ice into works of art that doubled as vessels for some of the most innovative cocktails the world had ever seen. Melton, a culinary graduate of Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa before becoming the first staffmember hired at The Aviary, toiled as the subterranean "Ice Chef" at Grant Achatz's cocktail bar for a year — a lonely position in the basement — after earning the position following a two-day stage at Alinea seven months prior.
He bleeds for the place
"Micah has worked literally every station at Aviary since the day we opened," Alinea, Next and Aviary co-owner Nick Kokonas says. "He brings a range of talents and experience to the Aviary that is truly rare and he bleeds for the place. I don't know what else we could possibly ask of him."
Melton, 29, was not bred to be a chef — he turned a mix of passion, work ethic, talent, and a willingness to do anything into the top position at one of the best cocktail bars in the world. As a boy in Iowa he would help in his grandmother's kitchen, but his first restaurant job came as a cook at a Red Robin while in college for computer science. After switching to culinary school, he worked in two college bars, eventually rising to become the general manager of one, as well as the executive chef of an Iowa fine dining restaurant. He showed up at the Alinea back door to stage, and two days later, Grant Achatz offered him the first position at his forthcoming cocktail bar. He took the leap and left his Iowa cocoon, absorbing a steep pay drop to become a line cook there.
"I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘Grant Achatz just offered you a job, how can you say no?'" Melton says. "Alinea opened up my eyes to another world."
He was hired to be a line cook (bartender) at Aviary, but the opening ice chef quit just before the bar was scheduled to open, and Melton volunteered to replace him, taking one for the team because he "realized that if we didn't have ice we wouldn't open." As fate would have it, the ice program was one of the most ballyhooed facet of Aviary in the beginning. A year later, he "moved upstairs" to become sous chef under acclaimed executive chef Craig Schoettler. Schoettler, an Eater Young Gun who's now property mixologist at Aria in Las Vegas, remembers Melton as having "fantastic potential, work ethic, creativity and drive."
Melton was the natural — and only — choice as successor
Last November, beverage director Charles Joly, who won the world's best bartender title in the Diageo World Class competition three months prior, announced his exit. For Kokonas and Achatz, Melton was the natural — and only — choice as successor.
Melton, who says it was "pretty intimidating" taking over for Joly, has taken a little bit from Schoettler ("the scientific side and creative side"), a little bit from Joly ("hospitality, balance and palate"), and a little bit from Iowa (fine dining initiation and beer) in his rise to the top at the Aviary. The menu is now mostly his, and the cocktails in the downstairs speakeasy-style Office are completely his now, incorporating his savory culinary cocktail style with ingredients including Serrano, bell pepper, and tea; passion fruit and Dijon mustard; bourbon and buttercorn husk; and black garlic.
After doing everything at Aviary, Melton says he'll "be around (The Aviary) for a while," and with good reason: Kokonas and Achatz are planning to expand the concept to multiple locations internationally. Don't be surprised to see Micah Melton at a city near you.