By Kiersten Tomson
It’s hard to believe one of the top chefs in Chicago grew up with a mom who couldn’t cook.
“My mother was an absolute terrible cook,” laughs Matthias Merges, chef and owner of Folkart Restaurant Management. “She’s a great cook now, but when I was really young back in the 70’s she was not a good cook.”
Merges didn’t know any different until he started cooking recipes out of the Time Life cookbook series. (Remember the Encyclopedia Britannica series? Same thing, except for food.)
“The first thing we cooked was sukiyaki a Japanese dish for our parent’s anniversary,” recalls Merges. “We sat down to eat and we were like ‘oh my god,’ it was a life changing experience, because I didn’t realize something could be so damn delicious.”
Merges has been behind some damn delicious food since then.
As the head guy of Folkart Restaurant Management, he keeps several Chicago restaurants running with more than 200 employees on payroll.
And this summer has been anything but lazy for Merges – he’s been closing the doors on some restaurants so he’s able to open the doors on new establishments.
“There’s a lot of things that are happening within the industry and the restaurant scene in Chicago so we just took a hard look at the landscape,” explains Merges. “Like number one, really good talent is expensive and we really need to make sure that when we have really good talent we put them in opportunities we can really capitalize on.”
This led them to shut down some of their smaller venues, including Yusho in Logan Square.
But, Merges is already onto the next as he’s been focused on his new craft beer spot at Wrigley Field, Lucky Dorr.
“I’ve been a Cubs fan for a long time so this is beyond cool,” says Merges. “When we opened up Lucky Dorr, I was standing there, like ‘I cannot believe we have a restaurant here and I can reach out my hand and touch Wrigleyville’ – never in my wildest dreams did I ever think this would happen.”
Also, stay tuned for his new two-story upscale cocktail bar and restaurant across the street from the ball park at Hotel Zachary. It is slated to be ready by Opening Day 2018.
“I think the consumer demands and expects more, the consumer is more savvy now than they have ever been,” remarks Merges. “We have to really up our game and understand the bar is constantly being raised from our consumer and we have to stay ahead; not only meet the bar but we have to exceed their expectations.”
Plus, with Conde Naste Traveler naming Chicago the “best restaurant city in America” this past May, Merges says they won’t follow the food trends; they create the trends.
“What we like to do is do something that is very close to us, that we know and understand and that resonates with the travels we have done across the world,” explains Merges. “And bring some of those fun interesting dynamic ideas back to Chicago and craft them in a way that has the midwestern hospitality and values.”
Merges is looking to serve up that midwestern hospitality to more people at a new restaurant space under construction on Randolph Street in the West Loop.
“We have to keep looking for other projects and other opportunities, so our great talent can really have an opportunity to realize their full potential.”
Plus, more opportunities mean more business, which is why Merges and Folkart Restaurant Management turn to Comcast to stay plugged in.
“We have absolutely 100 percent reliability now, which is unbelievable,” says Merges. “We can let our general managers and our chefs concentrate on the things that they should concentrate on like hospitality and cuisine and cocktailing, rather than, oh my god, I have to call IT, or our computers are down or our internet is not working.”
With Comcast powering all of Merges restaurants, he can use that extra time to put towards his nonprofit, Pilot Light Chefs, which helps educate kids on healthy eating habits in the Chicago Public Schools.
“We create curriculum that teachers can use within the school, every single day,” says Merges. “It teaches food, cooking and nutrition so food and health become everyday conversation rather than a one-off topic.”
And even with all these projects, Merges never puts his family on the back burner.
“I love cooking at home,” remarks Merges. “It is one of those things that you can share and bring joy and it’s so important for kids to get around the table and have them involved with making things, so we try to be around the table every day if possible.”
Since we can’t get a seat at Merges’s family dinner table, there’s definitely a spot for you at one of his Chicago eateries – bon appetit!