Antoine Melon was never supposed to become a big player in the world of hospitality. Rather, he was meant to follow in his family’s footsteps and become a jewelry maker.
The Melon family has been crafting jewelry for over 160 years, successfully running one of the oldest and most esteemed jewelry houses in Lyon, where Antoine was born and raised. A well-wrought toolbox of techniques and artisanal skills has been passed down through the family with each successive generation. But, in Antoine’s case, that hefty toolbox, packed with a century-and-a-half of history, was to be replaced by canteens of silver cutlery, stacks of white porcelain, and handmade crystal glassware – and all it took was lunch.
For his seventh birthday, Antoine’s parents picked him up from school at midday and took him to Paul Bocuse, a restaurant in Lyon famed for holding three Michelin stars for 55 years. Bocuse single-handedly changed the game of French gastronomy in the 1970s, pioneering nouvelle cuisine, and it’s safe to say the birthday boy noticed.
“Bocuse came to the table and introduced himself,” recalls Antoine, dialing in from his new home in Little Venice, London. Having only just moved a few days prior to our call, he warns me about the lack of a stable internet connection. Fortunately, I can hear each syllable of his childhood story, told in a soft Lyonnais accent.
“Then he invited me to tour the kitchen,” he continues. “I remember being so impressed with it all that when I came back to the table, I sat down and said to my parents, ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’
“And so I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be involved in hospitality and everything that surrounds it, pleasing people and creating a specific environment for them to enjoy, whether that’s by curating food, drinks, décor, or music.
“Each seemingly independent component is equally important when it comes to creating special moments in time,” he goes on. “The feeling I get from hosting – putting together an event that will forever occupy a place in someone’s memory – is priceless.”
There’s almost something Proustian about Antoine’s childhood recollections. It’s a story to get lost in. And it’s worth telling, because that one lunch has since led to quite the career. Indeed, having graduated from the world’s first hotel school, École Hôtelière de Lausanne, with a bachelor’s degree in Hotel Management, Antoine has spent the last three decades opening and running award-winning restaurants and hotels around the world.
To name just a few: the Bluebird in Chelsea, London; Six Senses in the Maldives; and Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group in Hong Kong. Antoine has also served as UK Director for Soho House and Chief Operations Officer for the hospitality group, Artfarm.
The finer details
With such experience, Antoine is undoubtedly an expert in the art of hosting, or as he might put it, l’art de recevoir. But I’m keen to find out what this really means and uncover some of the essential tenets underpinning the subtle talent.
“The art of hosting can be simplified as a series of questions,” answers Antoine. “Each of them will bring you closer to creating the perfect environment for your guest(s).
“Do you tickle their senses? Obviously, with taste, that comes down to the food, but there’s also the smell from the kitchen and surrounding candles; the delicate touch of the table linen and the coolness of the silverware; the beauty of the flower arrangement; the background noise, whether it’s coming from music or the goings-on of a restaurant.
“It’s funny,” he goes on. “During my career, I’ve opened 18 restaurants in countries all over the world, and I always say that you can judge one within 20 seconds of stepping foot inside – even if you’ve not tried the food.”
With his acute sense for l’art de recevoir, Antoine says one can make an accurate judgment by paying attention to the finer details. Are people having a good time? Are they enjoying themselves? What’s the temperature like? What kind of ambience does the lighting and music create? Are the staff in a flow state or rushed off their feet?
“All these tiny details add up to create truly exceptional moments for guests,” he observes. “From these alone, I can tell whether I’m going to have a great lunch or dinner.”
For those outside the business that still want to apply these principles and master their own l’art de recevoir, what might that look like in a home setting? “It’s a good question,” Antoine says. “As you know, the landscape is changing. More and more people are looking to level up their home dining experiences. But there are a few basics I would encourage people to perfect.
“First, utilize standard lamps and candles,” he reveals. “Avoid direct lighting if you can. It’s also wise to curate a playlist that matches the tone of the evening you want to create. Jazz is always a safe bet.
“Then you want to lay the table appropriately, indirectly displaying your enthusiasm for the event – you don’t need to go over the top, but you do want to make an effort. A good tip is to base the menu on the current season, as this will dictate which ingredients are available; try to shop locally if you can.
“Oh,” Antoine adds with a sense of urgency, “I almost forgot: Always avoid religion and politics! It’s best to have a few uncontroversial conversation topics pre-planned!”
Over the last few years, the public’s renewed taste for dining out, a reaction to months of being locked inside during the pandemic, has begun to fade. On top of that, new issues are threatening the industry, including a shortage of skilled labor and rising prices provoked by global economic uncertainty.
In response to this changing landscape, Antoine founded HOMETAINMENT, a platform that brings the best of the sector to your home. Whether you’re after a private chef, bartender, or musician, the service seeks to bridge the gap between private and public by providing easy access to more than 200 experiences from 85 London experts.
“The idea to create HOMETAINMENT came to me during lockdown,” Antoine reflects. “I missed hosting and cooking for friends and family, and I thought it would be wonderful to start a platform that allowed people to do the same – but in a new, levelled-up way.”
Undoubtedly, Antoine’s phonebook is saturated with numbers of famous chefs and big players in the hospitality business. If he wanted to put on a party to rival all others, then he probably could. But what about the rest of us? HOMETAINMENT promises an answer. “Now more than ever, the home has become a safe space for people during global crises,” says Antoine. “During the pandemic, it turned into a sanctuary, and people now want to spend their time in its comfort.
“To that end, HOMETAINMENT delivers a fully immersive hosting experience to the home, where all your senses are being engaged. Sometimes when you go to a restaurant it’s too loud; you can’t hear your friends. On top of that, you must cram an evening into 90 minutes because the restaurant wants to turn over the table as quickly as it can.”
Despite his love for traditional dining, Antoine admits that it’s not always the best experience. “I think when it comes to the future of hospitality, as Netflix did with the world of film, people will want to experience dining in their homes,” he concludes.
“With HOMETAINMENT, we’re bringing your favorite restaurant into a safe and comfortable environment where you have complete control. It’s a great way to spend an evening.”