I swore we wouldn’t spend the whole interview talking about food.
“So do you consider yourself more like RZA or GZA?” I ask Marcus Meacham.
“I’m more like Ol’ Dirty Bastard,” says the 33-year-old Houston import, and man with the plan at Bodega in the Short North.
Perhaps because, like ODB, there ain’t no father to his style? Hard to find people doing truly original things in the culinary world these days; perhaps harder still in a city like Columbus that has seen a rapid influx of new restaurants in the last few years.
A month off of competing in the World Food Championships, Meacham invited me into his lair – the low-ceilinged cellar beneath the restaurant – to discuss things, most of which was on the record.
It feels like you’re more visible than a lot of other local chefs. What causes that?
I’ve worked at a lot of places. I’ve got a lot of contacts. I worked at Barrio, I worked at Latitude 41. I’ve just been around. I put myself out there. I do cooking classes at the North Market, I do any competition I can, just ‘cause I like beating people’s asses.
Is there a point at which you graduate from that?
To where you don’t have to prove anything.
No. This is where I do my work. In fact, I have this…
Meacham got up and walked to another part of the basement where several pieces of paper had been taped to a heating duct. He pointed to one in particular, hanging next to a picture of a Wu-Tang Christmas sweater.
This quote, it says, “Sometimes I feel like giving up, but I have a lot of motherf*ckers I need to prove wrong.” I can stare at that all day. Plus, sometimes, you know – Columbus gets shit on. Compared to, say, Cleveland restaurants, just the fact that some people think good food can’t come out of here unless it’s copying someone else’s menu. It’s a constant struggle. Then here at Bodega, people still think of it as a bar first. I have _friends_ who still haven’t eaten here.
Why here, then? Why Bodega?
Barrio was going under. I had worked at Bodega back in the day, like five years ago when I was at Latitude and OSU’s student center – I was a bar back and a door guy. Then, the owners put in all gas ranges, and nobody here knew how to cook with it. All they had before was a pizza oven. So you’d take…meatballs – whatever – and put it through a pizza oven in a cold pan. Twice.
And they got away with that for six years. So they asked me to come in, do some training, consulting, menu development. I took them all to a test kitchen, put out like five of each dish. “This is how you do it.” Problem was, the people here were like, “We can’t do this. We used to work at pizza places.” So I stayed on for a month, and a month turned into two years. But then also, the reason I really stayed is they gave me complete creative control. It was like a pop-up restaurant. That’s appealing to any chef.
Meacham truly has made Bodega a food destination. Weekly, sometimes daily specials regularly populate his Instagram (chefmeach) and Bodega’s Facebook page.
There are a lot of new places, new restaurants. I feel like Columbus is getting a little saturated.
There’s so much. Too much, kind of. I wouldn’t want to open a new restaurant right now.
It could get overwritten.
Do you feel like you have an angle? A gimmick? Or do you just try to be consistently good?
If there’s a gimmick here, it’s that you’re walking into the unknown. And it changes so quickly, you have to be linked to the social media thing to even know what’s happening. It’s kind of crazy. I do it mainly to promote.
But people get bored, you know? Quick. They have their staple favorites, but if you can also offer different…like, I did a tomahawk chop here. 32-ounce rib chop. Nobody else was doing that. Sixty-day dry-aged. Because I can. It was f*cking bad-ass.
Working here is unlike any other place. Our limited space, the tight, weird design of the kitchen, we don’t have a walk-in…
You don’t have a walk-in? My eyes drifted to a chest freezer to my left, the lid weighed down with bricks, sealed tight. Is that your walk-in?
That’s our walk-in.
There’s a frankness to Meacham, a pragmatism that seems to say, “I just get shit done.” We talked more about the rigors of being in control of something small and what it demands of a person.
I’m a working chef. I’m not a pencil pusher. I’m right there, on the line. It’s high-stress, especially for someone who’s right out of culinary school.
So how did you get here exactly? You’re not from Columbus, right?
Nah, Houston. My parents moved from Houston to a town called Jackson, Ohio to be closer to their parents. My dad was a paleontologist with Shell Oil Company, my mom was a speech pathologist…
You don’t hear that one every day. Did you feel pressured to have an -ologist next to your name?
Yeah, one sister is a psychiatrist, another is a nurse – I kind of had a lot to live up to. I went to Ohio University for kinesiology. My dad wanted me to go for business to prepare myself if I really did want to be a personal trainer and own my own place. But, training was frustrating to me. So I started working at Casa Nueva in Athens, one of the only places that’s all scratch down there. They sort of let me just do every job. That’s how I ended up so deep in it.
What else gets you going?
Music and art are still strong in my blood. I founded something in Athens called the Hip Hop Shop – it’s still going strong, and some people will recognize me for that – kids. I’m into illegal art, too. Graffiti. Sometimes a friend of mine and I will go out and just wallpaper entire buildings with pictures of turntables. It’s basically straight-up vandalism. (laughs).
But [food] is my assault. On people’s eyes, on their taste buds. I tell my kitchen staff that I want to f*ck with people’s heads when they eat it. I want it to be good, but I want it to be memorable. At home, I have dry erase boards all over my walls. Recipes. I’m obsessed. I’ve always been this way with things. I had a notebook – 10 years of handwritten recipes and drawings of food. It was stolen out of my car, so I’m kind of crazy about it right now. I’ve been walking around looking for people with powdered sugar on their lips.
It was easier for me to [be a ninja] before being in the media. Vonn Jazz was out in the cut; I was always in the shadows before. Even at Latitude, I was just to the left of the screen, you know what I mean? Now, people are paying attention.
You say you don’t eat out much. What is there that you do like?
I like the food trucks. I worked with Dan [Kraus] of That Food Truck at J. Liu’s in Worthington for a little bit. I go there. Swoop, too. Matt [Heaggans] and I have these Instagram battles – he’ll take a picture of something and say, “Your turn,” and I have to run downstairs during dinner service and hand-make some steam buns or some shit.
I know everything’s been done food-wise. Or that it’s a common saying. I’m just on this weird, want-to-do-some-shit-that-no-one-has-thought-about. I’m not scared of failing. I just keep doing it.
The conversation then turned to what good food is, how to define such a thing, and the subjectivity of it all. Like any talented artist, Meach has refined tastes. But it wasn’t long before we both had horror stories about the food some people considered good.
You’d never want to look at someone eating something and say, “That’s not good.” If they like it, they like it. But…
But I just say, “Wow. Wow. F*ck.”
So you’re an elitist.
What control does the consumer have over you?
So for whom are you cooking?
Obviously, I’m pushing my food and doing interesting things for my staff, to teach them. To broaden them. I’m doing it for myself. I’m also doing it to prove motherf*ckers wrong. And I feel like I have a base of people who want my food. So I’m doing it for them.
In some cases, he’s doing it for both. In addition to his work out of the Bodega kitchen at 1044 N High St., Meach is taking his food assault into people’s homes with his Guerilla Brunch, where he and sous chef Charlie Umland will make a four-course brunch for you and your friends right in your own kitchen.