The menu reads like the specials at a trendy upscale restaurant –heirloom tomato gazpacho, wild caught grilled salmon with local honey-garlic and eggplant sauce, gnocchi tossed in pear water, multi-colored baby potatoes with mission fig butter, and cauliflower puree with fried plantains. Mouth watering? You should [ital]taste it. But this isn’t a restaurant menu. It’s what’s being served to Phish, the biggest jam rock band in the post-Grateful Dead world, who is playing a summer concert at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Charlotte, on this particular day. A sign hangs above the serving table listing the farms that the ingredients came from – honey from Asheville, cheese from Ashe County, figs from North Carolina, homemade basil gnocchi from Charleston. Nearly half the menu is vegetarian and vegan (no requests for gluten-free just yet). Melissa Myer, co-owner of catering business Food to Die For, is pulling vegetables like patty pan squash and lemon cucumbers out of a cooler. “I love this job. It combines my two favorite things in life – food and music,” says Myer, 53, who can now name-drop a hefty range of A-listers she has cooked for – and even shared a few tasty encounters with. Myer was born for this business. She loved cooking as she was growing up in Columbus, Ohio. “I use to throw dinner parties for my friends and their boyfriends in high school,” she says with a chuckle. Even as a kid, she’d pick up recipe books on vacation and tackle dishes like Cream of Peanut Soup. Myer grew up a music fan. Her mom liked jazz piano. Her dad, who died in September 2010, was a fan of Willie Nelson and the Rolling Stones. In 1966, when she was 8, he took her to see the Beatles at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. She also saw Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. “I tell people if they’re dead, I’ve seen them.” She got her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from UNC Charlotte and later returned to school when Johnson & Wales opened its Charlotte campus specializing in culinary pursuits and hospitality. Her first regular catering gig was making lunch for NationsBank team building outings. That ended when the company became Bank of America, but Myer was soon back in the business when the former owner of Tremont Music Hall in Charlotte’s South End asked her to cater for some bands there. That led to gigs working as a runner for concert promoters SFX and Cellar Door (which were responsible for concerts at venues around the Southeast, including Verizon Wireless Amphitheater). By the end of the 1990s, she had an invitation to run the local office of Pittsburgh-based Beechwood Avenue Catering. In 2010, Donnie Simmons, a former executive chef who worked in restaurants in Atlanta and Charlotte, answered an ad Myer placed on Craigslist. She hired the 32-year-old as a chef. A couple months later, the pair decided to purchase Beechwood’s business in Charlotte (which included most of the equipment in Verizon’s kitchen) and open Food to Die For. “I was looking for someone who is as enthusiastic about the business as I am,” she says. Simmons delights in sharing his unusual food creations as he spoons up a dollop of fig butter, a slice of chorizo-covered chicken, or spoonful of pear water. “I want artists to say everything was different – with a twist,” says Simmons, who grew up in Mint Hill. He and Myer had similar visions. He arranges the menus around what’s available from local farmers. They use mostly fresh local or regional ingredients and want those to represent their Southern surroundings because the diners they’re serving are coming from all over the world. “I want it all to be Southern-influenced, all from the Carolinas. The chorizo is made here. The eggs are from here. Today’s cake was made by Peggy Bloom, a 90-year-old lady from my grandmother’s church.” Simmons is also a music fan and looks the part – a close-shaved head, tattoos climbing up both arms, and hollowed out loops where his earlobes once held spacers. “From day one I said I always wanted to work in the music business,” he adds. “The words I used back then were ‘I want to work for rock n’ roll stars.’” But they're anxious to expand beyond music, since the bulk of the work is seasonal. They have found their way into another arm of the entertainment industry, serving lunch to the production staff at the upcoming Showtime TV series “Homeland,” which has been filming around Charlotte. Shopping and cooking for the stars isn’t all glamorous work. In addition to meals, Food To Die For stocks dressing rooms and tour buses with sundries (and yes, they did have to sort M&Ms by color for one visit by Van Halen). “I’ve bought underwear for Kid Rock, Marilyn Manson, Blink-182,” lists Myer. “I bought hair dye for Bono. I’ve worked for Tom Petty four times, but I’ve never seen him.” She’s had brushes with several more. Crooner k.d. lang once crept into the kitchen to make her own sandwich. Kiss rocker Gene Simmons popped in searching for oatmeal cookies. She shared dinner with Adam Duritz from rock band Counting Crows. An exchange with Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, former drummer for the iconic ‘90s band Nirvana, went something like this: Grohl: “I’ve never met anybody that’s seen the Beatles.” Myer: “Well, I’m sorry but I never saw Nirvana.” Grohl: “That’s OK. You didn’t miss much.” “He was serious,” she recalls with disbelief. Another jaw-dropper was seeing Bono, the humanitarian frontman for U2, having dinner with the late former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, a staunch conservative. Myer was also one of the last people to see Travis Barker’s assistant Chris Baker before the tragic 2008 plane crash in Columbia that killed Baker and three others and left the Blink-182 drummer and another well-known musician, DJ AM, badly burned. “He handed me a CD (of AM and Barker’s music) just before they got in the SUV to go to the airport,” she recalls. “It’s sad. I didn’t really [ital]know him, but you work beside someone all day and then that happens.” In between star encounters, Myer is spending a lot of long days in the kitchen. “I’ll take a Mountain Dew and dump a Five Hour Energy into it,” she laughs. The largest crowd she served was for the multi-band show Ozzfest (up to 350 people). Her longest workday was 25 hours straight for Prince, last March. Though she sometimes shows up with vinyl albums for musicians to autograph during her off hours, at work she generally doesn’t talk much about music with the artists she encounters. A collection of photos of her dogs she keeps out often serve as icebreakers (she rescues bulldogs and has a French bulldog tattooed on her right arm).She’s watched some stars come and go from the radar, while others have matured. “(There’s) nothing like walking into a dressing room and seeing two strippers wearing g-strings oiling their (behinds) and discussing which is better – silicone or saline,” she says of one Kid Rock-related incident. “He’s much tamer now. He was much more fun (then).” But that aforementioned oily-stripper story is the closest Myer comes to having dirt to share about any A-listers – no stereotypical incidents of cell phones hurled. It’s the nature of her particular business, which tends to bring out the best in those she encounters. “I find if you feed people,” she says, “they’re nice to you.”
More information: www.food2die4.com.
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