Melvin Rogers Stovall III wants to dish out a new kind of dining experience in New Orleans, one bao at a time. He’s the creative entrepreneurial mind behind Midnight Noodle, an amorphous pop-up “restaurant” serving mainly Chinese and Thai-inspired cuisine. His business has no traditional website, no brick-and-mortar building and no regular menu. He refers to himself as an artist first, a chef second. Sometimes he makes house calls, where he comes to your place of residence or business and cooks for you. Other times, he hosts dinner parties at Pax, a DIY restaurant/bar facility on North Claiborne. As long as there is a group of hungry people nearby, location is of little importance.
In December, he’ll host a series of “Hot Pot” events featuring Sichuan food including dumplings of some sort and a few surprises. We don’t know where, or who we’ll end up sitting next to. But that’s kind of the point. The element of surprise and even mystery is intentional. Like the midnight hour after which his business is named, Melvin likes to keep people in the dark, to some degree.
Spending most of his early life between New Orleans and White Castle, Louisiana, Melvin was raised in a big family that hosted big parties. That’s where he developed an appreciation for communal dining and the rewarding feeling that comes with being a good host. He got his start in culinary arts as a baker, which he learned in part through his entrepreneurial mother and the gooey cakes she sold in the community. “I noticed it was a way to freedom, because I was making my own money,” he says of his decision to follow her path around the fifth grade. “It also allowed me to research things and realize that, even if we didn’t have certain ingredients here, I could bring them here and put my own spin on things.”
While living in Los Angeles in 2015, Melvin found himself eating a lot of vegan dishes, though he’d always eaten meat and seafood in the past. The herbivorial life had its challenges at first. “I was like, ‘Damn, y’all ever heard of seasoning? Where’s the flavor?’” He hosted his first pop-up in L.A., where he made smoked shrimp jambalaya and it was a hit. That, coupled with his newly developed appetite for L.A.’s expansive Thai offerings, made him want to bring something back to his hometown.
Once back in New Orleans, he began experimenting. “I wasn’t about to do New Orleans vegan food, because I wasn’t good with substituting. I started with noodles because it was a good way to ‘trojan horse’ my way in. It started with Thai food and I just did pad see ew,” he tells me. “I started noticing people going wild. They were like, ‘This is spicy and it makes my mouth feel crazy, but it didn’t kill me.’ Those were the reactions I was looking for.”
Trips to the Hong Kong Food Market on the Westbank became his pilgrimage and source for ingredients. Bao became part of his bag of delicious tricks, dressed up with things like vegan fish sauce, a “caramel tofu thing” with pickled mustard and more. He began hosting primarily bao-centric meals at local breweries and he noticed people were sharing plates with one another.
Eventually, he developed a dim sum-style affair conducive to small plates and a communal atmosphere, just like that of his family events. A couple of pop-ups at Twelve Mile Limit and Courtyard Brewery behind him, as well as Sidney’s Saloon and Barrel Proof, and it was off to a semi-permanent home inside the Catahoula Hotel in 2018. That residency ended after some acrimony and Melvin has since recalibrated the future of Midnight Noodle.
“Some people are still wondering, ‘Is it a restaurant?’ My focus is on educating people. I do workshops now, but it’s never structured as a traditional workshop. It’s more like you’re being hands-on, and then there’s a dinner party vibe, too. I’m looking at it more like a social club, with a membership that gets you access to dinners, events and products. I’m going to start selling things, like chili sauce. I look at Midnight Noodle as food and a lagniappe.”
For more information on Midnight Noodle, follow @eatmidnightnoodle on Instagram