Chef Matt Merges was the chef de cuisine of Charlie Trotter when I did my first stage at the restaurant. I clearly remember leaning over from the grade manager station sneaking a peak from a distance as he butchered the most perfect salmon I’d ever seen. The fish never, EVER moved. I was humbled then to know I had a lot to learn.
He’s the mentor type that lives by a bushido like kitchen code that stays with me today even though I’ve left the restaurant life. In the kitchen, he’s always one step ahead of you but once work is done can help you laugh off a hard day or support you on a great service. I’m very excited for his latest project Yusho and what he will offer when it comes to yakatori in Chicago. Ever dish and aspect of the experience will be so well thought out.
I recently got a chance to sit down with Chef Matt and delve a little deeper to learn more about the man behind the toque and his new project set to open in October Yusho!
Name Matthias Merges
Married Rachel Crowl
Kids Caitlyn, Gretel, and Tatum
From Redbank, NJ
Culinary School CIA in NY
Twitter Handle @matthiasmerges
1. What did you have for dinner last night?
Matt: We made rigatoni with Portuguese anchovies and tomatoes from the garden - 3 kinds of basil from the garden, eggplant from the garden. Kale and tomato salad with stuffed squash blossoms from the garden.
CFS: This is a normal Sunday dinner?
Matt: Ya, we try to do something fun with the kids.
2. Place you eat most often on days off?
Masori on Devon
3. Favorite ingredient to work with?
Anything from the sea.
4. If you got $10,000, how would you spend it?
Matt: I’d give it to charity.
CFS: Anyone in particular?
Matt: Any charity to do with feeding children.
5. Favorite Charity Event that you do?
Matt: I would have to say – there are a lot. I would say the Napa Valley Hospital, Food and Wine auction.
6. Last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in?
7. If you weren’t cooking, what would you do for a living?
8. What did you want to be when you were growing up?
As a small kid a fire truck (laughs) but then when I got older a chef. Since I was 10 we would cook at home. I didn’t know what a chef was or what he did I just wanted to do that. My mom was a notoriously bad cook but she’s great now. My brother and I would cook on anniversaries or birthdays. We had the Time Life books from all over the world and we would go through those and I would read them like they were comics. I didn’t think food could look like this – colors and shapes. So we would grab recipes from that and my parents thought it was incredible. Cuisine is just beautiful. I wanted to be a cook forever.
9. Most exotic vacation destination?
I just got back from Iceland, maybe Abu Dhabi but that’s pretty modern. Singapore is pretty exotic from the Indian section.
10. If you left Chicago to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I love this city so much; if we had to I would probably leave the country.
11. Most embarrassing cooking moment?
Matt: Embarrassing or humbling?
Matt: The most embarrassing moment cooking isn’t in a funny way. It’s when you send something out, it happens on occasion and you know it could be better. It gets’ to the table and there is no turning back. It happens because you’re under the gun, pressure, you’re not focused and you drop the ball at some point. For me that’s the most embarrassing especially running a kitchen, in front of your crew and if they pick up on that your credibility is lost.
CFS: What would be most humbling?
Matt: It’s when you’re cooking for people who you’ve respected and looked up to as idols for so long. Now you’re cooking for them and even though they love it, you’re humbled and feel like a child again.
12. Person you would most like to cook for?
Matt: That’s a difficult question…alive or dead?
CFS: Either – you’ve cooked for a lot of people!
Matt: Thomas Jefferson, he was a complete Francophile. He had the first serious wine cellar and was all about cuisine. He had his own vegetable garden and took his food and wine as serious as his diplomacy.\
13. Do you have any pet peeves?
Matt: Mediocre TV shows that are food related! 90% of all TV food shows that have portrayed the food industry in a….they’ve lost perspective of what a serious profession this is. There are a few that do and are great.
CFS: What do you like to watch?
Matt: I like shows that people know what they’re talking about and have done the research they’re experts - Rick Bayless, Steven Reichlan he’s got it down. His books are great and he’s been everywhere just to research grilling and how countries deal with live fire. There’s a great show out of Denmark and the guys out in the middle of nowhere. They show you were they get the food and their enthusiasm and it shows why Scandinavian food is doing so well right now.
14. What is new on your DVR?
Motorcycle Diaries was a movie we watched recently. I really like Wes Anderson films.
15. Dish on the menu your curious to see how it’s received?
Whole Four Story Hill Farm Soy, Braised Chicken
16. After 15 years you’ve had a year of not being in the kitchen. What have you enjoyed most?
Matt: Connecting with the kids.
CFS: What was the biggest challenge?
Matt: Calming Down (laughs). It took me a month to rest and then I started project after project. I was so used to working so many hours day after day.
17. You’ve originally came out with a American themed restaurant and then you changed to Yakatori.
Matt: We’re still going to do American. This is one of a few.
CFS: So what made you change the concept?
Matt: Myself and my wife when we decided to focus on our business. We wanted to see how what I knew and what she knew and combine that to look for great real estate opportunity and match that with the food. We wanted to back in a great concept –I hate that word – ideas in to the right real estate. When we originally came to the street with the Folk Art idea, we were looking for a space for that. We came across the space on Kedzie we knew in our gut it wasn’t the right space architecture and size. We toyed around with ideas. We love Japanese and the esthetic. I have a huge passion for that and you know that. This has to be here. We hope it goes well and people will like and respect it and come and enjoy it then maybe we’ll do the next project.
CFS: So you’re going to let the real estate dictate the process? You’re not going to shoe horn the idea in to a space.
Matt: Exactly, I think that’s the one thing that is a failure for some. Some things aesthetically don’t belong in certain spaces. It has to be right. I can’t say this is going to a Matthias Merges restaurant and force it. You have to be more thoughtful. We don’t want to go past three restaurants. It becomes something different past three. I want it to be containable and focused in its vision. There are some great restaurant groups but we don’t want that. We want to be on the periphery of that, that first ring outside that belt.
18. How does your Yakitori play in to the current landscape with the other restaurants doing that?
Matt: They’re all doing their interpretation of what that is. Their singular in their approach there’s a formula except for Chizakaya. It’s a little outside that ring and is the most personal cuisine. I know Harold well, he worked with us in Vegas. We’re not interested in doing maki rolls or negiri sushi. We’ll do great sashimi if I can get great fish then I’ll tweet it and you can come and get it until it’s gone. Our view of what we think the grill is and should be is different. I don’t want to be coined as another Japanese pub. We’ll use the local markets and meats in the summer and not be these tiny precious foods. We’ll do a steak marinated in red miso but it will be a 6-8oz portion and it will be delicious. We’ll have our nuances.
CFS So it won’t be just food on a stick?
Matt: Yakatori is about grilled food not food on a stick. We’re looking at is as what can a gas grill do, what can binchotan do, what will a charbroiler do. The ingredients and how they react will be important.
19. Your past at Charlie Trotter’s you worked with every well-known chef on the planet! Was there one that you saw work that just blew your mind?
(Pauses) Yes, I would say some of the most talented, focused, thoughtful chefs would be Andoni from Mugaritz, Marc Veyrat…. Freddie Giardet - It’s the most inspiring when a chef is like 74 and he doesn’t like how something is done and pushes a 22yr old out of the way and does it himself. He’s looking, touching and tasting. There is something about experience that you can’t replace. There are a lot of great cooks out there. Ferran and those guys with him have an inspiring mind set.
20. The top of your Toque when you worked at Trotter’s always had written: Strength, Honor, Courage, Humility and Respect. Where did that focus come from?
It was a mantra I had for the longest time. I’m in to Bushido and code and I’ve tried to bring those identities to the kitchen. The kitchen is so structured throughout history. Not only did I enjoy cooking but I enjoyed the strategy of business and how that relates to the kitchen. Respect, Humility and Courage are the things a young cook should have to create a foundation to move forward. You can ask anyone who came through and they’ll all know those words. You know how I’m a humble guy, but I think that it’s helped a lot of guys get where they are today. It helps cuisine and the world of food in a way that has been lacking and something that I want to continue to do.
21. You’ve run your own Kitchen before in Utah, The Metropolitan. How will this experience be different?
It’s going to be world’s a part. I was 29 and now I’m 45. The amount of experience and working 80 hour weeks for 14 years being able to…pauses…the Trotter experience was the most difficult thing ever but it was brilliant at the same time. Being involved in so many different aspects. That was huge. The articulation now will be clear and I want to share that with more people. We respect the food and have the techniques but we bring it to the point that everyone has the ability to enjoy that. We’re going to make it more accessible. If we cut a piece of fish, it’s going to be cut like no other place.
22. You have always had a deep connection with Asia specifically Japan. What about the culture and the food excites you?
It’s always been the connection that chefs have with nature. In America, they’re beginning to understand that you manipulate as little as possible. You have a respect for what is grown and you put it out there for people to understand. The older I get I have an appreciation for simplicity because it’ s much more difficult to do something much more simple that will be life changing to someone who eats it and enjoys it rather than 17 steps of bling. That doesn’t interest me. That’s easy. You find the right way to do the beef and manipulate it right and you can’t hide behind it.
If you liked these 20 questions, check out the how Ryan Poli, Francis Brenna, Giuseppe Tentori, Charlie McKenna, Chris Pandel , Michael Muser, Curtis Duffy , Rob Katz/Kevin Boehm, Michael Taus, Chris Curren, Patricio Sandoval and Bill Terlato answered.
Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe is retained as a compensated blogger by Pei Wei Asian Diner.