After more than 40 years in the industry, Matthias Merges’ inspiration hasn’t waned.
“One thing I love about this realm of work is that you can continuously learn,” says Merges. “I’m always on a quest – why’s this person doing this and why’s it so delicious? If it’s a chef in Europe where their staff’s been with them for 20 years, I want to know why. I’m 56 years old, but I’m still like, “Can I please come work? I’ll wash dishes, I’m good at that.”
Merges began working in restaurants – washing dishes – when he was just 14 years old, going on to attend the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and eventually becoming chef–restaurateur Charlie Trotter’s right-hand man. His career took him all over the world, serving as director of operations and executive chef for Trotter for 14 years.
In 2011, Matthias launched his own hospitality group, Chicago-based Folkart Management, which now includes award-winning cocktail bar Billy Sunday, craft brewery Old Irving Brewing, cocktail-centric restaurant Mordecai, brewpub Lucky Dorr, and food-hall-based The Spindle Bar. Today, Matthias also consults with companies like Amtrak, United Airlines, Angostura, and Cuisine Solutions, and is the co-founder of Pilot Light, a non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and support students to make healthier choices.
We sat down with Matthias to learn how he’s seen the industry change over the years and get his advice for making it in today’s climate.
You’ve been in the industry since you were 14 years old. I’m curious what first drew you to working with food?
I was always into working with my hands, I loved that kind of physical work. My mother back in the day was a terrible cook. She’s a great cook now. But back then, it wasn’t good. One day, my father brought back the Time-Life series of the cuisines of the world, and each book was of a different country. My brothers and I loved the whole travel thing and exploring. So when I was nine [years old], we decided we’d make something for our parents that we’d cook ourselves. We chose Japan, and we made sukiyaki for their anniversary. We were like, “Oh my god, we had no idea food tasted so awesome.” After that, we continued to do stuff at the house, but when I first started getting paid for it, that's how I really got into it.
I had to get a job – my dad said I could have this old car, but I had to pay for gas and insurance. So I fell into washing dishes at this restaurant, and then they had me cleaning vegetables and things like that. I thought, man this is so incredible – not only am I getting paid, but I get to eat for free. They started taking me under their wing, and I started seeing how you could have that immediate gratification when you produce something, send it out the door, and see someone eating and getting excited about it. Through the rest of high school, I started reading a lot, getting cookbooks, and that’s how it all started.
You went on to attend the CIA, and since, your career has taken you all over the world. Can you share how your travels have shaped your current style of cooking and also your outlook on the industry?
It’s really influenced me to take deep dives into technique and history of food, service, and hospitality. I visited countries where the culture of food and celebration of eating together is thousands of years old. There’s something super remarkable about that.
If you understand and respect tradition, you’re able to use creativity and ingenuity to make something that’s more soulful, that has more of a story. Nowadays in restaurants, people don’t want you to just come over to the table with food that tastes great. People want a story, they want to know how and why you did it, and that elevates the dining experience to an entirely different level. Consumers have never been as educated about food, spirits and wine than they are now.
One of the major pivots for me was when I got the opportunity to work in Japan in this really awesome, old-school restaurant outside of Tokyo. It was in the family for 300 years, and I was working in the kitchen, and everyone was super nice. The food was simple but well done with super fresh, beautiful products. And I was cocky. I thought, “This is great, I’m going to kill it.” But right at the end, the owner and chef came up to me and goes, “You did a really great job here, but I want to leave you with one word of advice. You’ll never be a great chef unless you learn how to kill your ego.” That was the biggest transformational advice for me.
I really took it to heart, and it took me on a path to understand what it means to be a leader and really pay attention to the people that you work with, and understand how to bring out the best possible qualities of those people, how to help them realize their full potential.
What are some of the tactics you’ve used to do that with your own staff?
Working in kitchens is super intense. It’s very demanding – especially at [Charlie] Trotter’s. My role was to be that buffer, that middle person for the staff. I was running the kitchen. When it’s really intense, some of the younger people, you can tell right away they’re getting to a maximum point where they’re going to shut down, and their focus and food is going to start to diminish. You need to understand that and work with them – mentally slow it down so they can get back on track. I’d say, “Stop what you’re doing. Look me in the eye. Get back in focus. This is what we’re doing. Here’s how we’re doing it.” It’s finding where you can interject yourself not only to make the product better but to also use that moment to teach them something or instruct them on how to elevate their craft themself.
You’ve been in the industry for decades. What would you consider as the primary changes you’ve seen over the years?
What we’re seeing right now, since COVID, is the biggest monumental change, as far as staffing, and culture, and bringing people to not only a living wage, but to a point where we can call this a profession and pursue this in a deeper way.
But if you look back to the late ‘80s, understanding technology and the uses of it has really just blown up, and understanding how to make safer, better products and use talent and techniques to make better food. At Trotter’s, there were so many people pushing the envelope of creative cuisine. We were the first ones to use sous vide cooking and immersion circulators, and now, there are so many households that use that technology at home. Before that, it was nonexistent. It’s really changed the face of how people cook.
The advent of the Internet was massive. A small bistro in the middle of Kansas can get on the Internet and understand sous vide cooking and try to incorporate it. The ability to find products has never been easier. The level of quality, from fast food all the way to fine dining, is higher. Expectations from customers are higher.
As for the culture of restaurants, it hasn’t played itself out yet, and I don’t think it will for awhile – it’s going to be another year until we see that things have settled, even if that happens.
What do you think it’s really going to take to revolutionize the culture of this industry?
What would totally change the culture is if the American public puts value into what they eat and how much they’re willing to pay for it. When you go to Europe and you travel around, people are willing to pay more for their food if it comes from a local farm, has no GMOs, it’s pesticide free. There’s a value of food, of eating around the table, whereas in the U.S., there’s the mentality of “let’s go to the big box store, see how much we can get, and how cheap we can get it”. Then when people go out, they aren’t willing to make the jump.
We’ve been raising prices since slowly coming out of COVID, but we’re at a point where we can’t charge anymore. Our margins are being squeezed. The profitability of restaurants is diminishing. Until people realize the value and are willing to pay more, we're not going to be able to support our staff in the way that staff need and deserve.
The big thing I’m pushing now is, how can we use technology in a way that we don’t have to hire that extra cook? I’d rather pay $50,000 for a piece of equipment to take one person off payroll. And I hate to do that because if you want to learn the craft, you have to be in there and work the line and learn how to butcher a whole animal – there’s such a beauty in that, but generally speaking, it’s impossible to do that right now. You’re not breaking down an animal anymore.
You’ve voiced a deep-seated commitment to sourcing local ingredients. Was this always part of your mission, and if not, how did that become a mainstay of your operations?
We’ve always been driven to understand what sustainability means, and keep those businesses thriving so you’re not reliant on the massive salmon farm in Chile that’s now closing because it’s polluting the water and having devastating effects.
It’s a whole philosophy. If we’re able to support these smaller farmers and fishermen and winemakers and distillers, we end up with a better product, hands down. I always do what they call cuttings, where you're tasting side by side. I’ll get a commodity beef and a free-range beef. One beef was fed for X amount of days in a feedlot standing in its own manure, and the other was free-range on a ranch. When we taste them side by side, the conventional one tastes like shit, literally. And it’s the same with vegetables, and so many products.
What else keeps you most inspired today?
Just the travel and understanding more deeply about culture and food – for me, those things are so important. There’s so much to see and to understand – new flavor, new tastes, new techniques. I love to see techniques that are 500 years old, and you’re modifying that into something that’s current and relative to today. There’s something so beautiful about that.
Given your experience, can you share any words of advice for newer operators who are just trying to make it through this difficult climate?
You have to find ways to keep the passion of why you first decided to be in the business. You have to still fulfill yourself – whatever you need to do to keep that fire lit. That’s a very personal thing, but if you can do that, it’s much, much easier to deal with adversarial conditions that are out of your control. I’d also say, stay current. Look at the whole landscape of what people are doing, and not only in restaurants. I do a lot of looking at food innovation and food manufacturing. There’s things you can learn from those experiences that you can use to make your own operations more efficient.
The restaurant industry has long been notorious for small margins. But recently I’ve been hearing from operators who say we’re reaching a crisis where owning a restaurant is no longer an investment worth the risk. The appeal is dwindling. Do you still feel like running a restaurant is a viable career, and what other changes do you think need to happen to regain some sustainability?
We’re in a rough patch for sure. I’m not going to deny that. There’s a flushing out, so to speak, and it’ll be interesting to see what comes out on the other side. Right now, the middle’s being destroyed. High-end restaurants will always do well if you have a good product and you’re inventive and creative. If you have a fast casual, fast food concept, you’re going to do OK because people need to eat. But that margin of the bistro sit-down restaurant, it’s super, super difficult.
I’ve been talking to chef friends, and one thing that’s becoming very apparent is people aren’t doing these huge venues anymore. They’re focusing on one or two items that they can do very, very well. I’m not saying everyone should do that, but it makes a lot of sense. Asian countries have been doing that for centuries. It’s in America where you have to have 27 food items. But maybe we don’t. Maybe we can think of ways, where it’s like Kentucky Fried Chicken, but it’s elevated into a sit-down dining experience, something at a higher level than fast food.
Let’s pivot to a slightly more positive note – tell me a little about your nonprofit Pilot Light.
My wife and I moved to Chicago, and we’re all about, if you live in a community, you’ve got to give back. My wife became president of the school board, and I was going into our kid’s school, and saying, “Here’s a salmon. I’m going to cut it up, and here’s what it looks like. Here’s how it migrates.” And it was just a lot of fun for the kids to break up the monotony of the day.
At that time, there was a call to action by Michelle Obama for chefs in schools. But there was no instruction manual for how you get into a school, how you open a door to start your own project. I turned to Paul [Kahan One Off Hospitality], and said, “I’m already doing stuff in schools. Listen, we should just go do it.” So Pilot Light was started about 12 years ago by myself, Paul, and chef Jason Hammel from Lula Cafe.
We ended up creating an institute where we develop with teachers a curriculum they can take back into each of their classrooms. In Chicago, in the underserved communities, there are food deserts. So we’re not saying you have to eat organic. But when they go into the gas station, we want to give them the critical thinking to get the baked chips instead of the fried chips, a banana and a bag of chips instead of two bags of Takis. And if we can do that, we can change lives. Our goal, and it’s a big goal, is to change the life of America through teaching children about healthy lifestyles and healthy eating.
Where do you see your career continuing to move in these next few years?
I’m so passionate about this industry, this lifestyle. And I continue to find these magic moments, like, “Wow, we could do this.” You're taking all these influences and you're creating something new.
I'm not done. There's no, “By the time I'm 60 [years old], I want to retire and go play golf.” I don't play golf. I’m not done yet. I can tell you that. Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.