Matt Melone worked all day in the kitchen, and he’ll work more tomorrow. It’s December, an especially busy time of year at Pig & Porter, the downtown Cedar Rapids restaurant Matt co-founded with his business partner, Will Monk. Outside, the temperature sits below freezing.
“I see people I work with more than I see my kids,” Matt said. “In what’s gonna seem like five minutes, they’re gonna be teenagers.”
On Sunday evenings like this one, Betsy Lou Melone, 5, and Ellis Melone, 6, along with their mom, Dana Melone, meet their dad for dinner at Pig & Porter. The two girls were 3 and 5 years old when Pig & Porter opened in 2016.
“Sunday nights are the big night for us to eat dinner together,” said Dana, who works as a psychology teacher at Kennedy High School.
Inside Pig & Porter, chairs are flipped upside down atop tables. The restaurant closed earlier today—at 2 p.m. There’s an open kitchen at the back of the restaurant, where Matt stands behind a long wood counter. Across from their dad, Betsy Lou and Ellis kneel on stools, helping Matt scoop flour and shred chicken with their fingers, the soles of their matching moccasins facing the empty tables and chairs behind them.
“I feel like you have to get them involved,” Matt said. “The little one can cut with a real knife. I let her at work sometimes.”
“He sends me videos of her with knives,” Dana added, “And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh.’”
Before Pig & Porter, Matt worked as the chef de cuisine at Cobble Hill in Cedar Rapids, and before that, he “bounced around” kitchens in St. Louis and Chicago, finally landing at the late Lincoln Café in Mt. Vernon, he says.
Matt is the chef of his family, but working in kitchens has required late nights and, lately, 80-hour work weeks, so Dana usually cooks dinner for the girls. Nights like tonight are special.
“People definitely think we eat really extravagantly. And I like to point out that I make a lot of grilled cheese,” Dana said, laughing. “The girls and I eat together every night. But it’s always nicer when Matt can join us.”
Betsy Lou and Ellis migrate to the table where their mom sits. They begin to color with Sharpies on the crisp, white paper one finds on tabletops in restaurants. Meanwhile, Matt monitors the chicken as it poaches with flour and stock in a large silver pot—tonight’s dinner is chicken and dumplings, a Melone family tradition. The Melones prefer cooking dinner here at Pig & Porter; there’s a commercial kitchen and a dishwasher that takes a minute and a half to run a full cycle.
Covering the pot, Matt crosses the restaurant toward the bar, where the music controls are. Moments later, a familiar song begins to play over the speakers: “I’ve got. That. Sunshine in my pocket…!”
In no time, Betsy Lou drops her Sharpies and starts dancing. She twirls and twirls and practices her gymnastics moves, weaving through the maze of empty tables. Ellis wiggles in her seat. The 80-hour work week, the frigid air and the delicate balance of it all seem to lift away.
One by one, Matt lines bowls on the counter, filling each vessel with a helping of chicken and dumplings. At last, the final meal of the day is served.