Prior to opening Yusho, his Japanese street food/yakitori-inspired restaurant, this year, Matthias Merges served as the right hand man to Charlie Trotter for more than 14 years, overseeing all of the business’ culinary operations, including Charlie Trotter’s Chicago, Restaurant Charlie, Bar Charlie, Trotter’s To Go, Charlie Trotter Foods, cookbook development, and Chef Trotter’s participation in special events. Merges would also collaborate with Chef Trotter on numerous projects. Merges began working at restaurants at the age of 14 and he formalized his training at the Culinary Institute of America. He went on to work at some of Chicago’s most prestigious restaurants, including Carlos’, The 95th, LaTour at the Park Hyatt and Gabriel’s. He also opened Metropolitan in Salt Lake City as chef and co-owner, earning several accolades including “Best Restaurant Inter-Mountain West.”
FE&S: What are some of your earliest food memories?
Matthias Merges: When my brothers and I were young, perhaps in the 8 to 11 age bracket, we rarely ever experienced ethnic foods, white tablecloth restaurants or market-driven produce for that matter. One day in our mailbox we received the first copy of the Time Life Series entitled “Cuisine of the World.” Wow! We have always loved watching “Wild Kingdom” and Jauques Cousteau on television and we immediately gravitated to the Time series, devouring all the exotic pictures of faraway places and foods from all over the globe. We always waited in great anticipation for the next volume to arrive in the mail.
FE&S: Did you ever cook anything out of the collection?
Matthias Merges: On my parents’ anniversary we decided to cook dinner out of one of the books and we chose Japan. We had no idea what we were doing but we knew we would do whatever it took to get it done. We read through the entire book looking for something that hit a cord. Sukiyaki! I am not sure why, but it seems I always pick the most difficult recipes to prepare. We made stocks, blanched vegetables and more. Then, we plated the course just as in the picture. At that point I was completely hooked. From that point on we cooked many dishes in almost all of the volumes. There were as many failures as successes as we dove into each country represented. I couldn’t think of a better way to be introduced into the world of cooking and cuisine.
FE&S: You’ve opened many restaurants in your career. Can you name some of them?
Matthias Merges: Yusho Chicago Restaurant; Charlie at The Palazzo in Las Vegas; Trotter’s To Go; “C” at One & Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, Mexico; The Metropolitan in Salt Lake City; Gabriel’s in Highland Park, Ill.; and Southern Art in Atlanta.
FE&S: If you were to hope for something in America when it comes to the food industry what would it be?
Matthias Merges: Feed all of our children in the United States healthy, nutritious and sustainable school lunches made by people and companies who care about the health of our nation.
FE&S: What do you wish culinary schools would teach their students these days?
Matthias Merges: Culinary schools are wonderful resources for teaching of various cooking techniques, food safety and sanitation, basic service and beverage knowledge. But it’s also important to work in the industry in order to gain a greater understanding of the realities of restaurants in arenas such as finance, leadership and management. Most importantly, this is how a potential foodservice professional develops the passion to succeed. As a result, we need a new approach to teaching to nurture the next generation of cooks, chefs and restaurant professionals.
FE&S: Talking about Yusho, what is your favorite Japanese street food?
Matthias Merges: There are so many great cuisines in the world that use skewers as a cooking utensil, a way to transport food and as a way to eat food. While traveling in Japan I was able to stay at a traditional Ryokan outside Kyoto. We sat around an open hearth cooking area filled with sand and red hot Binch?-tan coals. The staff members came into the room with skewers of sea bream, which they placed at different points in the sand to cook in front of the coals. It looked like the fish were dancing in front of the fire. And it was delicious!
FE&S: What equipment is great for Japanese street food cooking, especially now that it’s summer?
Matthias Merges: The main piece of equipment for the beach is a small Japanese hibachi. When my brothers and I would go to the beach, my parents would always have this grill hidden in our VW microbus as if it came with the car. From pork chops to corn on the cob and everything in-between, the hibachi is a essential piece of beach equipment. Besides that, I always carry a cooler packed with fruits, from tomatoes to watermelon, when going to the beach or camping. I also never forget the chilled bottles of Nikolaihof Hefeabzug!