For many people, a night at a restaurant is like a night at the theatre. They take their seats with anticipatory enthusiasm, share what they have heard about the evening’s production with their companions and hope they’re in for a good show. And whether it’s a flawlessly prepared entrée or a brilliant live performance, it’s the end product that’s most visible. Concept, set design, blocking, and rehearsal are critical to good theatre.
At restaurants like Olivia in South Austin, a series of similarly painstaking, passionate, and essential steps are in the works long before the curtains rise on diners’ dishes. In between the planning and the presentation, there’s Olivia’s expo or expediter, Jason Melendez.
At its most basic, an expo position is the communication link between the front of the house and the back of the house. And at first, Melendez’s description of his job sounds pretty straightforward. “I communicate between the kitchen and servers,” he says. But it’s immediately clear that his post isn’t that simple, comprising much more than just firing courses and calling for runners. “My job can be really involved under the right circumstances,” Melendez says. “I try listen to everything at once; for example, a server on my left can be firing a course on a ticket while the kitchen to my right is telling me what ticket is being plated and placed in the window, all while I manage a board full of paper tickets containing scribbles and marks that only I understand.” Melendez’s job is clearly not for the faint of heart or strict linear thinkers. “I also organize the food in preparation to be sent out to the correct table according to ticket number and guest positions. Sometimes I have to call for back up—usually a double shot of espresso, and if I’m really busy you better make it a triple shot.”
“Now I sound so serious about expo,” Melendez admits. And while it’s true that the best eateries are necessarily organized, responsive, and committed to providing incredible service in the moment, Melendez is quick to embrace another important ingredient in building a successful team culture at a restaurant: “It’s a ton of fun.”
“I remain one of the silliest people who work at Olivia,” Melendez says, completely owning his reputation for providing jokes, silly antics and sarcasm. “I’m also that person at work who loves to secretly plant late ‘80s and early ‘90s dance or pop hits in your ear with the intention that my selected track will play in your head as the soundtrack to your shift.” Oops. Secret’s out. He shares his favorite joke — food-oriented, of course. “What did the French fry say to the potato? ‘Are you my Papa?’”
While Melendez brings a measure of both skill and levity to Olivia, there’s another facet to his and the restaurant’s winning combination. “I’m passionate about what I do at Olivia,” he says. “I see how much love is put into every dish. Farm-fresh ingredients, heart, soul, and years of experience come together to make some the most amazing dishes to warm your belly. You can’t help but walk out of our restaurant with a cheesy grin — sometimes literally,” he continues. “I know that passion is what generated the concept of Olivia and passion is what keeps it thriving today.”
Originally from Ingleside, Texas, a small community just outside of Corpus Christi, Melendez is a recent transplant, having made South Austin his home about a year ago. “Ingleside is a very small town and I have always been a big city girl,” he says. “After graduating from Ingleside I tried my luck in some larger cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. I learned much about floral design on the west coast but in the end I just wanted to be closer to my family, so I came back to Texas.”
Hold up. Floral design? Yep. As a compulsive creative, Melendez’s ability to perform countless tasks concurrently is mirrored in his imaginative interests. “I also play the role of in-house floral designer (at Olivia), providing fresh floral arrangements every week.” In fact, his list of creative interests encompasses much more than good food and gorgeous flowers, extending to such areas as sewing, gardening, interior and furniture design. “As a creative, I aspire to some day own a design studio where I can create freely and explore the many facets of design,” he offers.
No matter the medium in which they work, every good artist needs a muse, and Melendez is clearly gaining inspiration from his new home. “I love the natural beauty that surrounds this city — rolling hills, trees, the green belt, the lake, and all the biking and hiking trails,” he says. “You can never say that you’re bored here in Austin, and if you are bored you just need to get off your ass and look around. There is something for everyone here.”
More than most, members of the LGBT community know that family is often where you find it. While his ties to his biological family remain strong (he lists his Uncle Lito among his strongest creative inspirations), Melendez’s description of Olivia brings to mind similar sentiments. “It’s both an honor and a pleasure to work with Chef James (Holmes),” Melendez says. “He’s very passionate about his work at Olivia and he cares about every one of us at his restaurant. He goofs around, plays games, tells jokes, and sometimes he’ll pick on you like an older brother would but that just means that he likes you. Chef has a very big heart and is easily considered family.”
It’s obvious that Melendez cares about Holmes’ vision, and is committed to providing an unparalleled experience for Olivia’s din- ers. For good measure, he mentions a few more important ingredients. “I pride myself on the simple fact that I am a part of such an amazing establishment with exquisite food, and phenomenal service.”
Melendez is practically evangelical about the gastronomic goodies at Olivia. He was more than happy to share his favorites.
Jason Melendez’s Top Five:
> Lamb ribs. Melendez says olivia’s tender lamb ribs are bathed in a sweet and spicy sauce that is, with apologies to the colonel, finger-lickin’ good.
> Lamb sliders. clearly, Melendez likes lamb, and extolled the virtues of ground lamb, lightly seasoned and served on house-made bun and served with garlic aioli.
> Any house-made pasta dish. Melendez sang the praises of olivia’s pasta dishes, which are all created by chef de cui- sine morgan angelone.”
> Basque cake with ginger ice cream. It’s easy to understand why Melendez loves this dessert choice from his short de- scription alone: “warm cake that is pillowy and soft in the center and crispy and crunchy on the outside, served with house made ginger ice cream.”
> Glass of “Gravello” Rosso Gagliopo Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 calabria…nice well rounded red is complimentary to almost any dish.