Interview with Chef Matthias Merges of Charlie Trotter – Chicago, IL

January 2007

Will Blunt: There was a real sense of culinary gravity in the kitchen that night; how did you choose the chefs for the event?

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 Adrià, 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.

WB: Charlie 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 have it!

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 introductions.

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, velvet texture.

WB: Charlie talked a lot about how much he liked the wine; how was that coordinated?
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.