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Mel and Janie's Master Plan

Together these Denver restaurateurs have stayed in front of nearly every food trend in America. Here's what they're eating now.
Melvyn and Janie Master finally have time to eat leisurely meals with friends at Mel's Bar & Grill, the restaurant they own and run in Denver's Cherry Creek neighborhood. "The grand plan is to spend more time enjoying ourselves, more time eating and drinking," says Mel, holding a wineglass aloft to toast the concept. Moments later he's out of his seat greeting a customer, and then he's pitching one of his new wines to another. "He can't stop," says Janie, his wife of 32 years. "And that means I can't, either. Melvyn thinks of things the world wants before they happen, and you can't help but be sucked into the maelstrom."

Together Mel, 53, and Janie, 52, have made a food-and-wine road show of their lives. After growing up next-door neighbors in Surrey, England, they married in 1964 and moved to France in 1969. The couple played guitar and piano in coffeehouses--they spent their take in lavish restaurants and sold articles about the meals to magazines--and worked three-month stints in six great wine regions, then set up shop in Aix-en-Provence as wine exporters. 

In 1975, anxious about the impact of the oil crisis, they moved to Denver on a whim and settled with their three children in a small house on Grape Street. They've been out in front of nearly every food trend in America ever since, from nouvelle cuisine (which they introduced to the heartland with the opening of Dudley's in Denver) to Cajun cooking (they promoted Paul Prudhomme) and glamour wineries in Napa (they did marketing and promotion for Jordan Vineyard & Winery). Before chefs were celebrities, the Masters were selling the talents of soon-to-be-stars, including Alice Waters and Paul Bocuse. 

"They certainly changed my vision for Chez Panisse in dramatic ways," says Waters. For one blowout event at New York City's Tavern on the Green (co-sponsored by food & wine) in 1979, Mel convinced a reluctant Waters to bring tiny lettuce heads, whole garlic heads and miniature oysters on a flatbed truck from California to the restaurant in Central Park--a first for Manhattan and a triumph for Waters. 

By 1983, Mel and Janie had established New York's first outpost of California cuisine, Jams, with Jonathan Waxman. They expanded their restaurant empire to the Hamptons, even London--then impulsively sold everything and relocated to a farmhouse near Saint-Tropez. For five years, they marketed and exported their own Les Jamelles wines, selling 75,000 cases a year--a full-time job for most anyone else, but the Masters' equivalent of a vacation. 

The respite lasted until 1993, when Mel instigated a move back to Denver--and to the whirlwind pace he prefers. Once there, he realized that Americans wanted, say, grilled fish one day, a hearty Italian meal two days later and a sushi appetizer followed by roast chicken with truffles the next. He and Janie proceeded to open three very different, and very successful, restaurants in two years: Mel's Bar & Grill, with mussels, goat cheese soufflés and an extensive wine list in place of the usual bar-and-grill fare; Starfish, an elegant seafood restaurant with an interesting selection of white wines and fruity reds; and Bruno's Italian Bistro, featuring dishes like braised lamb shank and a creamy tagliatelle borrowed from Harry's Bar in Venice and a wine cellar heavy on Italian varietals. 

What made it all possible was the division of labor Mel and Janie have been perfecting for three decades. Janie, who worked in France under Paul Bocuse and Pierre Troisgros, knows how to set up a kitchen and transform vague concepts into reality. "Melvyn has incredible ideas," she says, "but don't ask him to put them into practice. He can inspire people, but I'm the workhorse who makes them happen. We tell him to go play tennis or go to lunch until it's ready. Then he can come look." 

Mel, unfazed, concurs: "Once we decide on something we want to do, Janie uses her vision. She's responsible for the aesthetics, the feel, the atmosphere, the menu." And once that's done, Mel is front and center, wearing one of his funky, patterned silk shirts, his white-blond hair combed back. 

The tough business decisions are made at home, when the executive committee of two meets on the balcony of their Denver condo. "We talk over everything, from the bar scene to how a new dish is working out," Janie says. "In the end, we agree 95 percent of the time. It's the other 5 percent that's worth watching." 

One thing they've agreed on, at least in theory, is that, in Mel's words, "we're getting too old to have to run around from place to place worrying about whether the napkins are folded." So last September they sold nearly their entire interests in Bruno's and Starfish, although they're committed to planning menus and wine lists for two more years. They have no plans to relinquish Mel's Bar & Grill--"my little baby," Mel calls it. Eventually their 28-year-old son, Charles, who trained at Bordeaux's Château Prieuré-Lichine, will run Mel's, and his parents will slow down, marketing and promoting Tortoise Creek, a new line of blended, unfiltered varietal wines they released last fall, and spending time in France. "That's the plan," says Janie, "but I wouldn't hold us to it." 

The text was written by Boulder, Colorado-based journalist Bruce Schoenfeld.

Published February 1998
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