Interview with Chef Matthias Merges of Yusho — Chicago, IL

August 2012

Nicholas Rummell: What was the inspiration behind Yusho?
Matthias Merges: My wife is an architect, and has her own firm. We wanted to have our own project, and had a group of ideas put together over the years. We fell in love with different types of cuisine worldwide through our travels, but didn’t have one particular one in mind. [So] we looked at Yusho through a business approach and location first.

NR: So the food was not the central piece of the puzzle at first?
MM: No. We did not have an idea for cuisine. The cuisine was not the driver. We wanted to make a smart business decision first, and then come up with different passions for food and see which one we felt was most appropriate. We reverse engineered [the restaurant]. A lot of chefs do the opposite, have an idea for a menu and then find a location. We wanted [a place where] we felt belonged. We’re located in [Chicago’s] Logan Square, and it’s an artists’ community—lots of foot traffic—and so we thought this style of yakitori would be very approachable.

NR: Tell me more about your travels abroad and how they affected the menu.
MM: We visited [Asador] Etxebarri, and that was a huge influence for us. The technique of cooking on open fire has always been for me a definitive cooking method, where [an ingredient’s] true flavor is shown off, the essence of the product you’re cooking is shown off. I really fell in love with that.

NR: What kind of grills do you use at Yusho?
MM: We use a few. Binchō-tan charcoal. We have a high-temperature gas grill. And also a robata.

NR: I take it you got the idea for binchō-tan from your travels to Japan?
MM: Sure. Binchō-tan is made from a solid branch. When it is lit, it throws off a tremendous amount of heat but no smoke. We use it for items that are delicate in flavor when we don’t want to impart any wood or coal flavors. It burns so hot you can sear [a piece of meat] and leave the inside perfectly cooked. Natural gas has a lot of water in it, so it burns humid. That makes it harder to sear. I saw it used at Birdland [a yakitori restaurant in Tokyo], as well as at places in Kyoto. When you are a young cook, you are in that first grade level of “that’s a grill, that’s a pot.” But as you mature, you realize there are 50 different grills you can use, or 50 different woods or gas or charcoal.

NR: How has Japanese cuisine and culture affected your cooking?
MM: The culture and cuisine of Japan is simplified down to its purest essence. Here there’s a yakitori restaurant that only does chicken, here there’s a restaurant that only does cuttlefish. That whole attitude is what I wanted: disciplined and focused on detail. I wanted to keep [our menu] clean and focused. I wanted to make sure the food spoke for itself, where it was recognizable and delicious.

NR: You’re not just a fan of Japanese cuisine. You’re also enamored of Japanese culture, and the bushido warrior code in particular. Tell me about that.
MM: A lot of chefs concentrate on food and being immersed in cuisine. Understanding culture and immersing yourself is the only way to truly appreciate the cuisine you’re trying to approach. With the bushido code, there are some truths with the kitchen’s brigade [system] that it aligns itself with very closely, especially with respect and humility and courage to get through tough times. These sorts of things are truths. It’s very easy to get distracted and lose focus and take the path of least resistance in the restaurant business.

NR: How long have you been a devotee of this philosophy?
MM: Even when I was at [Charlie Trotter’s], I tried to quietly preach it. My first trip to Japan was in 1995, and I have been there six or seven times since. I always tried to look for the quintessential places or art or food or architecture that define Japan. We’ve made it a mission to do that in other countries as well, but in Japan it was our m.o. As I gained hold of the reins [at Trotter’s] I was able to teach and lead through those principles, and a lot of those chefs still hold those principles dear.

NR: Charlie Trotter was obviously a big mentor in Chicago, but you were also something of a mentor while at Trotter’s. Who are some of the chefs who’ve come up while you were there?
MM: We had a lot of great chefs come through. Curtis Duffy, John Shields, Graham Elliot Bowles, Homaro Cantu, Giuseppi Tentori, David Lefevre, and Bill Kim are a few off the top of my head.

NR: A big theme right now is the impact of history on modern culinary technique. Are recipes from the past something you look to?
MM: Absolutely. I’m a huge history buff and love to read and go back, study, and understand what’s going on in terms of cuisine. There are so many similarities in viewpoint [between the past and present]. I’m currently reading the Art of Cookery, which is the first book that Thomas Jefferson brought to the states from Europe and the first collective cookbook. Reading [I realized] some of the techniques that we think are modern really are not. It inspires me to take an old recipe and develop it [in] our kitchen, but it also gives me a respect for the history of cooking.

I love to share that with the other cooks in our kitchen to give them a sense of place. At some point in American history [in] the 1940s through the 1960s, cooking became a convenience and not a focus. I call it the Lost Generation of cooking. Now we’re coming back to the celebration of being at the table.

NR: What about the future? What’s next on the horizon for you? What’s next?
MM: We’re still looking at American cuisine. But we’re also still getting our Yusho feet firmly planted. We’re under construction for a tavern concept. In the near future I would like to revisit [our plans for a] folk art restaurant, which would be focused on elevated American dining.