Food is a way of life for Crystal Bridges Chef Melody Lane. “I’ve always been in the middle of exciting food movements throughout my career,” she says. But it wasn’t just Bentonville’s burgeoning food scene that brought the 57-year-old chef and food activist to Northwest Arkansas, but rather a cultural happening on an international scale: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
She arrived at Crystal Bridges the summer before opening, helping the Museum to build a narrative around the tenets of High South cuisine, and offering much-needed expertise on maneuvering food service in a museum. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, Melody was the chef for the esteemed Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri—a tenure that proved invaluable during the busy inaugural year at Crystal Bridges.
Chef Mel, as her friends and contemporaries refer to her, was practicing the important virtues of sustainability decades before it was trendy to do so, encouraging people to do the right thing through pursuing local farmers, ranchers, and artisans to provide local, organic, and sustainable produce for the museum.
A consummate storyteller, Chef Mel’s life reads like a novel, chock full of deep-sea battles with Moray eels, near-death experiences in the heart of Mexico City, scary and inexplicable ghost stories from the Midwest, and memorable encounters with rock stars such as Debbie Harry, Prince, Patti Smith, and David Byrne.
Perhaps Chef Mel’s greatest virtue is her ability to demystify the art of food and cooking through her daily practices—rallying a team of cooks and chefs who make food accessible through her eyes, mind, and palate. Her culinary skills are exceptional and rare, but it’s the unmatched altruism of her work that makes her the person and chef she is to all of us who know and love her. This article was originally published in C, the magazine especially for Members of Crystal Bridges