Matthias Merges is one of many contemporary American chefs who started out in fine dining kitchens and then set out to do something more accessible (and of another culture). In his particular case, the fine dining kitchen was Charlie Trotter's, where he put in close to fifteen years of service. The project he embarked on was Yusho, a casual restaurant meant to evoke the Japanese izakaya and yakitori spots he fell in love with while traveling with his wife, architect Rachel Crowl. It's worked out pretty well for him: he's earned rave reviews and is already following it up with two new restaurants, one of them a more scaled down version of Yusho. In the following interview, the chef talks about why he decided to go the Yusho route, his experience there so far, and how he feels about the time he spent at Charlie Trotter's.
Tell me about how the idea for Yusho, and going away from more traditional fine dining, came about?
Working for Charlie Trotter, I was able to travel throughout the world for food and experiences and culture. I'd travel with my wife, and we were so interested in the street food — its accessibility and flavor. There was an intensity to it that I loved.
My wife is an architect who does a lot of redevelopment work. We thought about the idea of reverse engineering how opening a restaurant usually works. Most of the time, a chef has a cuisine in mind and then finds a space. In our case, we wanted to find a space and then develop a style, a kind of cuisine that fit it.
Then describe the space and what it presented you with.
We wanted to have a neighborhood spot near where we live. The space that we found is a one-story space that's not necessary industrial, but utilitarian. There's two distinct rooms: one room is long and there's lot of lighting, reminiscent of the Japanese markets, where every single stall has their own lighting. We wanted to allude to that but not totally recreate it. Then, the second room has twenty-foot ceilings and exposed brick walls and skylights. It opens up into this whole different environment — it goes in the direction of the bustling izakayas, which we really loved.
Would you say that it's skewed to Japan or that it borrows evenly for Asian countries?
I think it's a bit more skewed to Japan, because those are sensibilities that most strike a chord for me. It's the way I like to eat and the way I like to cook.
With yakitoris and izakayas, there are obviously some variations, and everybody has their favorite one, but they all tend to have a lot in common. I'm wondering if you're trying to fit neatly into the category or whether you want to explore it loosely?
Yeah, I think that's exactly what we want to do. We don't want to duplicate a yakitori or an izakaya. We're not Asian, we have no Asians working at the restaurant, and we're in the American Midwest. Like other restaurant with other base models, like French cuisine — look at Eleven Madison Park, where the foundation is French but [Daniel Humm] has really developed his own cuisine. That's what we're trying to do here, something personal.
I want to make sure that we maintain an authorship of the cuisine where it reminds people of the dishes they maybe had in Asia, but is clearly our take on it. We're very inspired by the techniques we've discovered abroad, but we use those them in a creative way. We like to make it ours, using local produce. We actually even work with the Cook County Jail, which has its own garden. The restaurant has a Chicago stamp on it is what I'm trying to say.
Can you elaborate on some of the hallmarks of your spin? What are some examples of the way you approach the cuisine?
One thing I think the Japanese are known for is taking one thing and learning how to do it to perfection. One guy takes on sushi omakase, another takes on kaiseki, and they work on that without much deviation. They perfect it within this very tight box. Recently, though, you've seen a lot of chefs in Japan being creative, especially after they've gone to train elsewhere.
Take the takoyaki, for example. You eat those on the street in Osaka, and they tend to be greasy and stuffed with octopus. It's such a beautiful object, and we realized that it's just a vessel for things. It doesn't have to be limited to octopus. So now we use salmon roe in the takoyaki. We thought about doing a play on the salmon teriyaki, so this faux takoyaki comes with it and it becomes a thought-out idea.
It seems like going forward, you're not going to limit yourself to one cuisine, right?
There are so many food cultures out there that inspire me. When you travel basically anywhere, you build beautiful food memories that you at some point want to build on. I would like to do something smaller and more focused. My wife and I sit around and come up with tons and tons of concepts, since we have so many things we love. That's how it begins.
I don't know what the restaurant will be tomorrow, but it will be different than this. There will be that same passion, focus to detail, excitement, and perspective, but it'll be different.
Finally, I've got to ask what it was like working for Charlie Trotter for so long.
I worked for Charlie for a long, long time. We had a great working relationship, and as the restaurant evolved, I think it lost it's way a little bit. I think Charlie had other aspirations in life and other goals. When I first started, we were all committed to being the best restaurant in the world. That's it. That was the only goal. Eventually, it got to the point where that wasn't it. I was working for six or seven days for fourteen hours each day for fourteen years, so I realized that I needed to do it on my own, reinvent the way I think about food, and have fun. I needed to be challenged again.
When you say that it lost its way, does that mean it became less relevant, or was it something else?
No, it wasn't that really. I can only speak up to the time before I left, around 2009. Trotter's was always relevant in some way, even though it went through some ebbs and flows. My point is that there is a difference between a very good restaurant and and excellent restaurant, and that is usually a level of commitment and focus. It's almost intangible, but it transcends everything. It becomes this thing where the whole is greater than the sum of its part. Every single person has to be on the same page to make that work. I don't feel badly about my relationship with Charlie and I'm so humbled and glad to have been a part of it. But it was just time to do something different.
And that's why you didn't do fine dining?
A lot of people asked me why I didn't open up a fine dining restaurant. It's because I did it for fourteen years. It actually wouldn't have been as challenging, I think. This, at the very least, made me want to fall in love again. It really shook things up. It was an area I wasn't too comfortable or familiar with it: how do you take the fine dining pillars and adapt them to an accessible environment? How do you get the customers to come out saying the same things that they do after a three-star meal? I think a lot of other chefs are saying the same thing and being very successful. There's something very soulful about that.