Blunt: There was a real sense of culinary gravity
in the kitchen that night; how did you choose the chefs for
Matthias Merges: We’ve worked with
every top chef on the planet in some way or another, either
at a benefit dinner or special function, We’ve worked
with Paul Bocuse, Ferran Adria, Wylie Dufresne, Thomas Keller,
and we always look for different chefs who have the same philosophy,
dedication to their craft, and a generosity. We want to work
with people who understand the whole idea of cuisine, restaurants,
and hospitality. For this event in particular, everyone who
was here truly epitomized what they do in their own house—Herme
in Paris, Andoni in Spain, Wylie in New York. We wanted a
great vibe so we looked for really special chefs.
WB: Menu planning
is a perennial challenge. Your courses had a certain consistency,
how did you plan that out and how did it all come together?
MM: Charlie basically told me, “I want
to feature these chefs,” and gave me a list of about
10. From there, we narrowed it down to people we would really
get along well with. The first step was to find a winemaker
and acquire enough of each wine to be able to send it to our
chefs. Once they’d gotten the wines and tasted them,
they wrote us back to say what dishes they could potentially
make to pair with the wine.
WB: How much
do you guide the chefs during the process?
MM: We always get the ingredients for the
chefs. They make us a list and we wait and fill in the blanks.
We try to make as few restrictions as possible and only guide
with portions and pairings. Chefs are happy with that and
the Chefs we choose usually have the same thing going on in
their own houses as far as portion size and quantity go. Sourcing
is the hardest part of the process.
WB: How much
do the Chefs bring themselves?
MM: They brought very little; everyone worries
about customs so we sources as much as possible for them.
For example, for the potato dipped in clay I searched about
5 or 6 quarries. I finally found this place in Tennessee that
does slurries for ceramic houses. For another dish I spent
a long time sourcing out this handmade kuzu root powder that’s
dried in the sun and flown in from Japan.
Trotter’s has a notoriously small but well organized
kitchen. Can you talk a little bit about mechanics of putting
on an event like this in your kitchen?
MM: The first step is to procure all the
ingredients and plan out as much as possible. It’s key
to find a balance between meticulous organization and spontaneity.
To do this, our Sous Chef divides our cooks into teams to
break down all the products the way the chefs want before
they arrive. Our cooks research the chefs, study the recipes,
and figure it out as much as possible to minimize risks. One
person is in charge of all the chefs. Another person concentrates
on organizing the mise en place. We start prepping with the
guest chefs two days before the event and give them as much
space and time as possible with their dedicated teams.
WB: The night
before the event, there was a dinner serving all the same
dishes. Was this a dry run?
MM: Actually, we do a dry run the night before that.
That night we invited industry folks and other people who
wouldn’t be able to attend the event. By that time we
already know every detail of the plating and logistics. Everyone
knows that it’s assembly line for one course, but we
lay down the dessert a la minute.
WB: How did
you decide which dish would be assembly or a la minute?
MM: Everything depends on the flow of the
kitchen, what precedes and what follows that dish, what equipment
needs factor in etc.
WB: How did
you communicate with the servers to get the timing right?
MM: My goal was to have everything I can
handle handled, and then let it rip. It’s important
not to get too caught up and lose focus, to stay calm in total
chaos and know how to prioritize. Realistically, there can
only be one chief and everyone has to know you’re in
control. Minimize mistakes. Use the game plan but be spontaneous.
Know what everyone is doing at all times.
WB: The event
went off really well, but when there were a few hitches, how
did you deal with it?
MM: There were no major errors but there
wasn’t enough squab breast—we were 3 pieces short.
That’s a very simple thing to correct. The hardest thing
during service is getting everyone to pay attention to tiny
details, and getting a serious consistency with the plates.
How do you get that across to a novice cook who might be starting
to stray? How do you communicate that and get the cook back
on track without affecting them negatively? Servers can start
to wander and crown and everyone needs to be on the same page.
Whether you’re front of house or back of house, everyone
must be doing something at all times. I encourage everyone
to ask themselves, what am I doing right now? If the answer
is nothing, something is terribly wrong! This is a restaurant,
there’s always something to do! Focus!
WB: The dinner
was a real marathon, how do keep the energy going?
MM: Especially towards the end, say, after
the 5th course, it’s important to be a leader and set
the tone. Once you walk through the door you just have to
WB: Did you
have any special equipment needs from the guest Chefs?
MM: We need the Yakitori grill for the octopus
dish, which we already have here. When you reach a certain
level, everyone uses all the equipment you have. We basically
have a complete set of restaurant equipment, comparable to
all of our chefs’ restaurants except for el Bulli.
WB: I was really
impressed by Charlie’s pre-service introduction of each
chef to the staff. Is that standard at the restaurant?
MM: A month before the event we brief the
staff. We encourage them to go online, look at their restaurants,
and learn as much as possible. One week later we sit down
for a service training about all the guest Chefs. We talk
about their history, philosophy and cuisine. And we discuss
the winemakers too. That’s the preliminary step to Charlie’s
WB: The dinner
was a real Herculean effort followed by a great family meal.
MM: This was a really special event, it was
very important, but we treat everyone like a family. After
a 20 hour day, from the dishwasher to Charlie, each person
has been so important to our success. We go to this bar next
door called The Store after our big nights. We’ve
done that since the opening of the restaurant; it’s
our neighborhood joint. We discuss the night, how things went
and what we’re all taking away from it.
WB: The line
cooks were supercharged about all the chefs coming and seemed
to use that time to get to know them better.
MM: It’s definitely very motivating
for our staff. We’re one big family here and everyone
knows each other. This is how we grow as an industry.
WB: What were
the ideas behind the dishes?
MM: We try to combine interesting ingredients
and spontaneity and feature food items that are alluring and
have a certain mystique. We’ve been using organ meats
for 20 years but now we make a liver sauce in a way that really
shows where we are today. The dish with the licorice emulsion
added a really unexpected element to the dish but kept it
harmonious. We called the 24 hour sunchokes, because we cook
it for 24 hours sous-vide until it’s completely broken
down and its sugar is well developed. It gets this luscious,
talked a lot about how much he liked the wine; how was that
MM: We had many of these wines on the menu
before. They’re all organic, biodynamic, handmade, beautiful
wines, that aren’t in the typical Tuscan style. We call
the winemaker first and explain that we’re having this
dinner and we’d love for them to be a part of it. We
ask them what they want to show off and people understand
what that means. They realize the enormity of that and they
pull out some really big wines. They come back with a preliminary
list and we specify that we need this many reds, this many
white, this many desserts. We really hammer something down;
all the chefs taste the wines and we take it from there.
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