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A North Carolina native, Mel Melton went to Lafayette, Louisiana in the summer of 1969 to visit a college friend and play a little music before going back to UNC. His plans changed when he became totally immersed in the rich culture and physical beauty of southwest Louisiana. He moved permanently to Lafayette at the end of the summer and began playing in a band he co-founded with Sonny Landreth, the Louisiana slide guitar-playing superstar.
To help support his new musical career, Mel took a series of jobs in the best Cajun restaurants in the city and discovered a new talent and another part of Cajun lifestyle, Louisiana cooking. Over the next few years he honed his musical and cooking skills, eventually becoming a well known Cajun chef. At the same time, he was becoming known as a singer and harmonica player specializing in a zydeco style of harp playing that has become his trademark.
Mel arrived in Austin, Texas in 1972 at the start of the Austin music scene. He took a job at a BBQ joint near Lake Travis as a dishwasher, but eventually moved up the ranks to cook. The restaurant happened to be a hang out for several European chefs who worked at the resorts situated on Lake Travis and Melton was offered a cook position at one of them. While there, he joined Austin’s Chef Association and after several years, became chef at the Tarry House, a private club frequented by many Texas luminaries such as Walter Cronkite, Tommy Lee Jones, Sissy Spacek, and many Texas politicians including the Governor, who held a weekly staff lunch at the club.
In the early 80’s Sonny and Mel formed the band “Bayou Rhythm”, adding C.J. Chenier to the lineup. The band headlined shows nationally and also opened shows for a number of legendary musicians including: Ray Charles, B.B. King, Dr. John, The Neville Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Dave Edmonds, and The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
During his time with Bayou Rhythm, Mel was challenged to a gumbo cook-off by Rockin’ Dopsie at the 1986 American Music Festival in Chicago. The event was so well received that Melton decided to always cook for the band’s gigs and his peerless Cajun cooking quickly become a signature twist to his shows.
In 1986, Melton left Bayou Rhythm and moved to Chicago to pursue a full time chef career. In his first month there he won the prestigious Grand Prize at the Rolls Royce-Krug Champagne Invitational Chef Competition. Melton opened two new restaurants while in Chicago, one of which was named as one of the top ten new restaurants in the area. He frequently did cooking demonstrations and prepared food for a variety of events, including The Chicago Jazz Festival, The American Cancer Society Ball, Mardi Gras at The Limelight Club, and many others. He also appeared on the local television program “Two on Two,” and several radio programs.
The year 1990 found Melton back in North Carolina, where he still continues to spread his interpretation of the food and music he grew to love down in the bayou country. Mel is back in the spotlight, cooking on stage with his band, The Wicked Mojos, as well as off-stage. He has served as executive chef and independent restaurant consultant to many of the Triangle’s most notable restaurants and food service organizations.
A frequent guest chef at the Southern Season Cooking School in Chapel Hill, NC, Mel has parlayed his unique cooking and musical innovation into a new restaurant venture. Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse blurs the lines between food and entertainment, taste and sounds, visual and musical. The restaurant features Mel’s renowned Cajun recipes, appearances with his own band, and other live Cajun/Zydeco musical acts from around the southeast.
In an attempt to describe the roots of his music and food, Mel recited all of the influences that came to him from his long stay in the Bayou State. “There’s zydeco of course, and Cajun and blues, and New Orleans jazz and funk. But as far as what we’re playing, I like to call it ‘Mojo Music.’ It’s a lot like the food. Down there everyone cooks, but they all have their own little way of stirring it up. When people leave one of our shows or my restaurant, I want them to feel like they’ve been down in the swamp at a big party and they’ve had a great time. That’s what it’s all about.”