Matthias Merges Snacks Across the Globe
The appeal of snacks captures everyone, especially Matthias Merges, chef/owner of eight restaurants in Chicago and Las Vegas. Merges’ restaurants range from Yusho, his casual Japanese grill, to the Mediterranean-minded A10, to Old Irving Brewing Co., an American brewpub. He spoke with us about why he loves snacks.
You spent 14 years as the executive chef at Charlie Trotter’s, creating degustation menus. What took you from fine dining to casual food and snacks?
In fine dining, we used luxury products, with beautiful table service and formal waitstaff. To me, there was no reason why I couldn’t create that experience and do small plates that are thoughtful and prepared well in a way that is more accessible to more people. I get excited about different cuisines and want to share that and explore it; that’s what my restaurants are about. I wanted to express myself in a way that is more casual. It gives me the latitude to take chances I wouldn’t take in a fine-dining atmosphere. We have a bit more room to play.
Your restaurants feature Japanese, American and Mediterranean food. How does each cuisine approach snacking?
Americans have always had snacks; think of potato chips, which are so simple and delicious. At a bar, a good snack accents and adds to the experience. Small plates came later. About 15 to 20 years ago, small plates were found mostly outside the U.S., like Spanish tapas or Tokyo small plates. That was the advent. Now, you find them everywhere.
In Mediterranean countries, it’s all about snacking and enjoying individual items. You try different cheeses, olives, salted fish, vegetables that have been lightly pickled. I think there is going to be a huge resurgence of Spanish canned and preserved products. They are prepared so simply but are delicious.
In Japan, it’s an adventure. You go to the markets, and one person is doing grilled octopus with a miso strain that is 300 years old. It’s incredible. Rather than sitting and eating one big dish, you go from here to there and try things and experiment with new flavors.
It’s also about beautiful products. At Yusho, we were creating dishes that incorporated ingredients that were delicious on their own, and we thought, ‘Why can’t we serve them by themselves?’ That’s where the crispy chicken- and pork-skin snacks came from. If you’re breaking down a mackerel, why can’t you fry the bones and serve them with Asian peppercorns? It’s part of the culture to utilize the products you have.
What are your favorite snacks?
I have a strong German heritage, and I love to eat pickled beets and eggs. We always have a cured fish—I do that at home with my kids. I have lots of condiments and Spanish canned items on hand. And always good bread and wine.
We like to pull everything out and play around with them. That’s how I love to eat. I like to try small bites that are well prepared and intense in flavor. You wouldn’t want to have eight ounces of it, but a bite or two is perfect. Snacks are small peeks into the chef’s mind.