When my husband, Steve, and I arrived at Vida, a AAA-Four-Diamond restaurant tucked into the Lockerbie Square neighborhood of Indianapolis, we knew we were someplace special. The expansive patio with an indoor/outdoor fireplace, the verdant hydroponic wall garden and the subdued volume all gave us the impression of elegance, luxury. But there was also something familiar about the restaurant, with its exposed ceiling rafters, orange and tan upholstered chairs all neatly tucked beneath bare wood tables, and the open kitchen, where Executive Chef Thomas Melvin, a semifinalist in the 2022 James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards for Best Chef: Great Lakes, plated dishes as we passed by on the way to our seats.

THE ESSENCE OF VIDA

We ordered from the four-course seasonal tasting menu developed by Melvin, who came to Vida in 2017 from another Cunningham Restaurant Group favorite, Union 50. Melvin’s modern American cuisine reflects the same combination of unique and familiar we felt when we arrived: foods we eat regularly, like salad, roasted carrots and fried chicken, but prepared and presented in creative and artistic ways.

Just before dessert arrived—ricotta doughnuts, the lone holdover from the original Vida menu—I excused myself to the ladies’ room, where candlelight flickered on the walls. As I walked back to the table, I realized that somehow even the candle fragrance fit with the essence of Vida. When I asked Melvin about it the next day during an interview, he knew exactly what I was talking about.

“With everything I do, I try to put myself into the shoes of the person that is experiencing it,” Melvin says. “Whether it be the walk up to the restaurant, whether it be sitting in this dining room, whether it be going to the restroom and smelling a candle, every part of that, I try to think, ‘How is this going to be received?’”

Which is why an evening at Vida feels less like dining out and more like visiting a beloved relative who knows just how to make you feel both special and at home all at once. “We want to embrace what Indiana is—the hospitality state,” says Melvin. “We want to elevate food without being stuffy. I don’t want them to be uncomfortable, but I love the opportunity to change people’s minds.”

“We want to embrace what Indiana is—the hospitality state. We want to elevate food without being stuffy. I don’t want them to be uncomfortable, but I love the opportunity to change people’s minds.” —Chef Thomas Melvin 

BEING A CHEF CHOSE HIM

Another way to describe eating at Vida is that it’s like reading a story, each course a surprising new chapter. And if you know Melvin, you know the story of Vida sounds a lot like his own.

Melvin was raised in Greenwood, Indiana, spending time in the kitchen with both his grandmas and snapping green beans from his grandpa’s garden. Food came naturally to Melvin, as did the food industry. He started his first food service job at age 14 as a dishwasher for a local pizza joint. By age 15, he was assistant manager. Throughout his teenage years, he worked in various food service jobs, but he never wanted to be a chef.

Instead, Melvin dreamed of going to art and design school, studying Japanese and seeing the world. But when his plans for art and travel fell through, he continued to work in kitchens. He had “a love for food I didn’t know I had,” Melvin says, and eventually, even when he still wasn’t sure he wanted to be a chef, “being a chef chose him.”

He tried culinary school, though having already been in the industry “for a minute” he found it just wasn’t for him. Instead, he worked his way up to line cook, then sous chef, eventually becoming an executive chef. But even then, he still wasn’t always comfortable in the role.

“When I was coming up in the industry, at least in my circles, it was always, ‘Where’re you going to go? Because you’re not going to stay here. You’re surely not going to stay in Indiana. You going to New York? You going to Chicago?’” Melvin explains. And he almost did move to New York with a friend. “But eventually I came to an epiphany: Look, why do I have to leave? Why am I ashamed of Indiana? Why am I ashamed I dropped out of culinary school? I’ve come this far, and I’ve done it on my own two feet.”

AN ALL-IN HOOSIER

From that point forward, instead of looking down on his Hoosier upbringing, he decided to celebrate it “by staying here and making an impact on the culinary scene here,” Melvin says. “From that time, I went all in.”

From the carefully curated dining spaces to the Angus rib eye on Melvin’s menu, Vida reflects the “all-in” Hoosier upbringing he now embraces. In fact, he and his wife, Amanda, are raising their own children, Grant and Stella, here in Central Indiana. But other parts of Melvin’s life—his artistic flair, his interest in Japanese culture, his travels—they also find their way to the Vida menu.

“I love this industry because I get to be a craftsman and an artist,” Melvin says. 

VISIT VIDA

You can learn more about Vida, Chef Thomas Melvin and his modern American cuisine by visiting Vida-Restaurant.com, where you can also check out menus and make reservations. Vida is located at 601 E. New York St., Indianapolis, and is open 5–10pm Tuesday–Saturday.

GETTING TO KNOW CHEF THOMAS MELVIN

Want to learn more about the man inside the chef coat? Here are five fun facts about Chef Thomas Melvin:

Chef Thomas is also an artist, and as a young man he wanted to follow in his aunt’s footsteps as a fine-art painter.

Chef Thomas has worked in many facets of the food service industry: independent restaurants, corporate restaurants, private country clubs, hotels, catering, and more. “I’ve seen it all because I wanted to know where it was I wanted to be,” he says. “I learned that I liked restaurants and that’s where I wanted to be.”

The candles burning in the Vida restrooms were chosen by Chef Thomas: Penn and Beach’s P&B Blend and Bourbon scents.

Stella’s Solemates Inc. is a nonprofit started by Chef Thomas and his wife, Amanda Schroeder Melvin, to support local organizations who work towards a common goal of advocacy, education and inclusion for those with Down Syndrome and other special needs.

Sundays are family day for Chef Thomas. “Whatever we’re doing, it’s totally about my family,” he says. “You have to have that margin for yourself for just recharging.”

Originally published at Edible Indy on June 15, 2022. Photography: courtesy of Cunningham Restaurant Group.