Adventures in Cheese

Joe McCarthy may not be a race car driver, crew chief or owner, but for the past 15 years, he has been an integral part of racing teams.

He has cooked for racing teams in IndyCar, Formula One and other series around North America.

The 42-year-old owner of Meltz Extreme Grilled Cheese in Coeur d'Alene, located on 1735 Kathleen Avenue, won't be working at this year's Indy 500 (Sunday, 9 a.m., KXLY), but he has cooked for racers, racing teams and members of the media at Indy in the past, most recently in 2011.

"INDY IS racing chaos," McCarthy said. "There's nothing like the Indy 500. It's a beautiful track. There are all kinds of festivities and it lasts the entire month. There are people at least a half-mile around the track and down the block, with a ton of partying. There are food vendors everywhere, it's a carnival, a two-week party. For me, as a chef, I'm totally exhausted at the end. I'll serve 3,000 people over a weekend or about 7,000 per week. It's just me and a team of four guys. We also feed the TV guys and also half of the teams in the minor series."

McCarthy has been busy cooking for race car drivers and their teams since last spring and summer. One example was when he fixed meals for a buffet, so he could feed several people in a relatively short amount of time. One other example was when he whipped up grilled chicken, vegetables and pasta.

"Last year I did four events. I did Chip Ganassi Racing and because I built up all the contacts there, I started getting other calls from other teams," McCarthy said. "I cooked for Target, I did LMS, the American Le Mans series in Monterrey and cooked for eight teams and we did a hospitality unit. I still might do a couple events this year, but I'm trying to get away from racing, more and more, to do Meltz.

"I did Indy four years in a row, from 2006 to 2010," McCarthy said. "There were times I wasn't doing Indy, because I was doing CART, (Championship Auto Racing Teams), and they were split, they were fighting each other. Two open-wheel series in America, that was the big thing. The IRL had Indy and CART was out of Indy. So they were both struggling and when the economy hit (struggled in 2008), they merged."

AFTER MOVING to Georgia for a few years, working for upscale hotels in St. Simons Island and working part-time there, McCarthy received a call that helped kickstart his career cooking for racing teams again.

Anyone remember the 1976 song "Don't Fear the Reaper", by Blue Oyster Cult? The drummer from that band, Rick Downey, has been a chef the past several years.

"Rick Downey is a guy I've worked with for the past several years," McCarthy said. "He lives in Indy and he has a catering service there. When he first started it up, that's when he called me in 2006 and he asked me, 'Can you come down to Mexico? My chef just went down in flames.' So I spent the rest of the year as his executive chef. We (cooked for) all kinds of racing teams. I called it combat catering. We also did teams who could not afford their own chef."

COOKING FOR world-class drivers began for McCarthy back in 1999, when he ran into an executive chef who opened his eyes to the world of racing.

Dave Horner, who worked for Honda Racing, invited McCarthy to help him at a race in Monterrey, Calif.

"So when an opportunity came up, the year he needed a sous chef, an assistant to the chef, and that's when it all started for me on the racing series," McCarthy said. "He and I worked for Player's Forsythe Racing Team. It was a Canadian racing team. We did that for four years together and I was his sous chef and we traveled around the country (cooking for auto racing teams)."

TO BORROW a fairly common phrase, McCarthy was living the dream. It's pretty tough to beat the pay and perks - he said he's made anywhere between $36,000-$80,000 per year while working roughly 16-20 weeks per year, plus paid flights, per diem and travel expenses. Not to mention witnessing some of the top events in racing, outside of NASCAR.

"Once you get the racing thing into your system, it's hard to get back into being a real chef," He said. "Once you get that racing thing into your blood, it's not this thing that I actually loved racing. I just loved the experience, you become a part of the family. I'm not passionate about cars at all, but the good thing is you know a lot of people who are into cars and into racing. It's mindblowing. For years, we watched all the minors series show up."

McCarthy also cooked for a historic figure, of sorts. In November 2012, Antron Brown was the first African-American driver in history to win a major auto racing title, the NHRA Top Fuel championship.

"We cooked for IRL racers and NHRA (drag racers) as well for a year. One of the racers I cooked for was (current NHRA Top Fuel points leader) Antron Brown, he just had an accident fairly recently (last Friday during qualifying for the NHRA Summer Nationals in Atlanta). He almost lost his life. He's one of the only African-American drivers in the series."

THE REQUIREMENTS for McCarthy in order to move to Coeur d'Alene were fairly simple - have airport, will travel. In this instance, it was the Spokane International Airport.

"I got married when I was 29 (in 2001 to Brianna) and we moved to Coeur d'Alene," he said. "We were looking for an affordable place to live. At that point, all I needed was an airport, because I was traveling as a chef on a racing series, so it didn't matter (where we lived). We were actually living in Pocatello and we were looking for a house. And people we knew kept (asking), 'Have you been to Coeur d'Alene, have you been to Coeur d'Alene?' I said, 'No, I've never been there.' We looked all over the place. We looked at Bend, Ore., Seattle, southern Oregon, looking for places to live. We took one last drive, past Kellogg, over that ridge and saw the lake and stuff. We knew there was an airport there and said 'This is it, we're living here.' We bought our first house, that's what I did, I was racing. We started having babies, my wife wanted to be home. We had our first kid (Mason, now 10) in 2004 (and Talan, in 2006)."

McCarthy has quite an established cooking career as he heads off into his new venture for Meltz, the two-year business that this year won the National Grilled Cheese Invitational for his "Korean Krazy" and "Ultimate Meltz" sandwiches.

His choosing to focus more on Meltz might be the auto racing industry's loss, but definitely our gain.

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