Chicago's restaurant community was shocked by the news that Matthias Merges, executive chef at Charlie Trotter's, was leaving after overseeing the world-famous Lincoln Park kitchen for 14 years. Where would he go? What would he do next? We caught up with Merges, who is in the process of opening his own restaurant with his wife, architect Rachel Crowl, who is a partner in the architecture firm FC Studio.
Why did you leave Trotter's?
After 14 years of wonderful, crazy adventures, it was time. What I was able to do with Charlie was incredible. I traveled all over the world, opened different restaurants. Fourteen years is a long time and I did what I set out to do. My goal was to always teach by example and produce the best cooks, best waitstaff, best sommeliers and the best product that we were able to create. We never achieved it because there's always things to work on. It was time for me to move on.
What will you take from that experience?
Being able to articulate your vision to your team and to be able to motivate and give back to your staff. That's the biggest thing that drives a very successful restaurant.
After 14 years, how can you separate yourself from that sort of kitchen?
In recent years there's been a mad dash to open your own restaurant and get on TV and little effort for many to work the stove and understand what craft is.
So what's next?
I'm partnering with my wife who is an architect; she does restaurants and high-end residential. We decided it's time to partner up and do our own humble restaurant. We are in the beginning phases of design and putting the entire concept together.
What's the concept?
We're celebrating craft in America, which means in terms of cuisines and service and art and the interior and structure. We have a fondness for folk art and there's been a debate it's not fine art. We're in that gap where folk art meets fine art and want to be something that articulates creativity in America and celebrates why America is such a great place. It's a broad palate.
So the cuisine will be ...?
We don't want to be labeled as farm-to-table; we want to celebrate the artisans—sculptors, weavers, farmers, ranchers—and how they've honed their craft and elevate it to another level. We're not the creators. We're the messengers.
How is that different from farm-to-table?
We're going to be very refined in the detail. We're not doing white tablecloth and silver, but it's not going to be as casual of an interpretation of farm-to-table. We'll change the decor every season to reflect the [seasonality of food].
Won't that be expensive?
We're using wall coverings and color and textiles and it doesn't have to be a massive expense. We want to [convey] that mood and change in season.
So the big question: when will it all be ready ... and where?
Early- to mid-summer. We're looking at some overlooked classic industrial areas. We want it to be an anchor in the neighborhood.