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October 30, 2014

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Q+A: From five-star gourmet to street food for Yusho chef Matthias Merges

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Chef Matthias Merges is bringing his Chicago restaurant Yusho to the Monte Carlo in Las Vegas. Twice fried chicken is pictured here.

Chef Matthias Merges and Yusho

Chef Matthias Merges is bringing his Chicago restaurant Yusho to the Monte Carlo in Las Vegas. Pictured here: Lobster Chawanmushi. Launch slideshow »

It all began for chef Matthias Merges desperately wanting to escape his mom’s uninspired regular meals of overcooked liver and onions.

He eventually wound up with a 14-year run in charge of the late Charlie Trotter’s global five-star gourmet restaurants, cookbooks and food events. He opened Charlie’s amazing restaurant at the Palazzo and was in charge for nearly all the three years it won culinary awards galore.

Now Matthias is returning to the Strip with an eagerly awaited, but surprising, concept of Japanese street food with Yusho set to open at the Monte Carlo this month.

Yusho, which is inspired by his Asian travels, is a knockout with food fanatics in its two Chicago locations. The menu changes often because Matthias is opposed to having set recipes and so that he can continue searching for flavor combinations for new dishes.

I talked with Matthias on his most recent visit here:

For somebody who toiled at the hands of one of the ultimate masters of fine food, why did you go Japanese street food after Charlie probably taught you more about food than any other man in the world?

I was in fine dining since I was 17 years old. I was with Charlie for 14 years as executive chef and director of operations, and I got to the point in my life where I needed to shake it off and challenge myself in different ways. A lot of people said they couldn’t believe I was giving up fine dining: “Why aren’t you opening up a five-star restaurant?”

That would have been the easy way out for me. I wanted to really explore a lot of things that I really fell in love with while traveling, visiting markets and eating things on the streets in Malaysia, Singapore, going to Japan and China. Those food experiences were so vibrant in my mind that I wanted to explore them more. I thought why not make this acceptable with a larger, broader audience.

There’s no reason someone cannot come into Yusho and spend $30 or $40 and still have a wonderful experience; the same thing you do with fine dining. You're not having a white tablecloth or silver or crystal glasses, but you’re having thoughtful service and well-thought-through beverage programs and well-crafted cuisine with great, knowledgeable, friendly, engaged service. If we give you those things, I think that there’s no reason why I wouldn’t want to explore that.

But you’ll be the first to admit that your food at Yusho is eclectic and certainly different from everything that Charlie ever did.

It is far and away, for sure, but the way we look at food in restaurants and service, it’s the same. It’s just figuring out how to do it in a little bit of a different kind of atmosphere. It’s a definite departure from the 2 ounces of foie gras or 100-year-old balsamic vinegar, but I think that you can get the same pleasure from dining without needing to spend $40 for one course or $250 for a tasting menu. I think that there is definitely something there that is real, and people gravitate to it.

Especially now with the food culture on television — 15 or 20 years ago, a foodie was only relevant in 10 percent of the population. Now it’s spread across so many areas where you can be living down south in Memphis and you’re a barbecue aficionado. You know everything about barbecue. There’s such a great understanding now of foodie cuisine. It’s the same thing with Asian cuisine where in Los Angeles you have steam bun trucks and congee trucks. People are just so into flavor and things that are acceptable and real.

Did Charlie, when he was alive, God bless his soul, eat at Yusho?

He had the food and really enjoyed it several times. His verdict was always positive two thumbs up. He understood what I was doing and why I was doing it. We also have our cocktail bar Billy Sunday, so we’re doing all our dinners with the same kind of fruits, and foods and our bar program in house and bringing it to Yusho of Las Vegas.

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Monte Carlo bound: Matthias Merges’ Yusho opens soon in Las Vegas.

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Chef Matthias Merges is bringing his Chicago restaurant Yusho to the Monte Carlo in Las Vegas. Pictured here: The cocktail Soul of the Sensei.

Click to enlarge photo

Chef Matthias Merges is bringing his Chicago restaurant Yusho to the Monte Carlo in Las Vegas. Takoyaki is pictured here.

It’s unusual that you’ve gone so Asian without white tablecloths or frou-frou of any kind to be right down-to-earth basic?

It is definitely, but it’s more interesting that I’m not Japanese and I’m not Asian, and I actually live in Chicago. My Asian guests say what I do isn’t Asian, but they prefer it to the traditional! The food that we do and how we perceive it was inspired by our travels, and we call it Yusho cuisine because no one really does what we do. That puts us a little step ahead.

We’re not trying to imitate. We just want to be ourselves and have fun with food and use those kind of markers in Asian cuisine by using a product or ingredient that specifically is Asian, but put a spin on it and a twist. Coming from my background of fine dining for so long, we’re able to draw from so many techniques and things that we’ve done and use them here.

Do you hate liver after all those years of Mom’s cooking?

No, actually, I love liver, but when I was a kid, my mom was just a terrible cook; now she’s a great cook. We used to get the overcooked liver and onions with a pound of butter, and we used to get the cold meatball subs that were soaking in water when we went camping, and we were like this can’t be real.

My father used to travel and every once in a while we got to travel with him. I remember going to San Francisco in the 1970s dressed up in a suit and tie to this Japanese place in San Francisco that was very traditional. I turned to my brother and asked, “What is going on here?” How can this be possible? We’re eating stuff at home, but this is packed with flavor. It was unbelievable! So later my father purchased the old 1960s Time Life series of “Cuisines of The World.” Twenty volumes, each a different country and its cuisine.

We loved reading, and we just ate the books up. So we started to cook out of the books for my parents on special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries. I remember when we started, we must have been 7 or 8 years old using the Japanese book. Since then, I’ve always cooked.

No more liver?

We love liver now, but we cook it slightly differently than my mom used to.

Is Yusho in Chicago the hot, happening place?

It is indeed. My wife is an architect, and she has her own firm in Chicago. Most chefs would open up a restaurant, and they would say, “Here’s my cuisine, here’s what I’m going to do, now let’s go find a space.” For us, it was like let’s go find a space and let’s look at it and really feel what the bones are like inside the place and create the experience around that.

Yusho is in a place called Logan Square, which is a very hip artist community. We felt that our concept would fit very well in this kind of industrial space in this little neighborhood; that's how Yusho was born. Each space that we developed so far, like Billy Sunday or our A10 restaurants, have the same kind of formula behind it. One is like an old Chicago cocktail bar, and the other one, A10, is more based on the motorways of Northern Italy and Southern France.

On any given night, we can have an elderly couple at one table, and then right behind them is the early- to mid-20-year-old tattoo parlor piercing artist fully decked out, and both of them will be having an awesome experience at the same time in the same restaurant. That would never happen at Charlie Trotter’s.

If Yusho is a success here in Las Vegas, does that mean Billy Sunday and A10 are on their way here next?

We would only be so lucky if that would happen. Las Vegas is a great place, and I’ve always had great experiences here. It’s such a culture of food experiences now that there’s a lot of relevance in what we do and how we do it that could fit in here. So let me know if you want to be the first investor!

I’m not being unkind or uncharitable to Charlie because I loved him dearly, but I guess you spend money a lot differently when it’s yours rather than the way he spent it?

I think the one thing that I really loved about working with him is that I operated for him as if I owned it. I spent his pennies as if they were my pennies, and I think for great business people, especially chefs these days, that you have to think that way even when you’re working for someone else. I think that it’s very easy to get caught up in the whole glitz and glam and start spending huge money. You really have to do it intelligently and strategically; it’s so important.

Be honest, though: He did spend a lot of money.

Oh, yeah. When he gave me $75,000 for wine purchase, then I would spend $75,000 on wine. You have to have the respect for the dollar.

But when it’s your money, you're not spending $75,000 for a plate.

That’s exactly right. It’s a little different now, especially for what we do.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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