How Chef Matthias Merges Of Folkart Management and Pilot Light Is Helping To Promote Healthy Eating

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Martita Mestey
Authority Magazine

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Lean hard into genuine, meaningful hospitality as this is the core of our business. Great food has to follow this!

In this interview series, called “Chefs and Restaurateurs Helping To Promote Healthy Eating” we are talking to chefs and restaurateurs who are helping to promote and raise awareness about healthy eating. The purpose of the series is to amplify their message and share insights about healthy eating with our readers.

As a part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Matthias Merges.

Matthias Merges is the chef and proprietor of Chicago-based Folkart Management, a craft-driven hospitality group focused on operational excellence and state of the art design, which includes award-winning cocktail bar Billy Sunday, Wrigleyville destinations Lucky Dorr and Mordecai, and craft brewhouse Old Irving Brewing. Merges is a longtime contributor to Chicago’s culinary and hospitality community and is deeply passionate about leveraging his resources and those of the industry for philanthropy. As the co-founder of Pilot Light, a non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and support students to make healthier choices, he’s leading a mission to bridge the lessons children are learning in the classroom to the food on their lunch trays, at home and in their communities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

Ever since I was a child, the pleasure of sitting around a table and sharing a meal with my family and friends has provided me with some of my greatest memories. That being said, it was natural for me to lean into the craft of cooking and hospitality to create and share those experiences with others.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

As a chef, I’m on a continuous journey of discovery. From deeply understanding seasons, creating wonderful relationships with purveyors, curating products from the sea and land, to vintners and distillers– there are a multitude of elements to consider. Needless to say, I am interested in all things cuisine and beverage!

One of my most transformative experiences was when I worked in Japan, a truly inspirational country, and saw the respect and deep understanding that the Japanese people have for the products they source from the water. So, if I had to pick one area, it would have to be the sea. From shellfish and seaweed, to bluefin tuna and small Japanese ayu (sweetfish), and everything in between, I have a true love for how ocean life allows us to prepare such beautiful meals.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that has happened to you since you started? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

During my time as Executive Chef at Charlie Trotter’s restaurant, I had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the world. One of my most incredible experiences happened on a trip to the Middle East in Abu Dhabi. After we cooked for the Emir of the country, I had the chance to go on an excursion organized by the hosts. I selected between trips ranging from fishing to shopping as well as a number of other excursions. There was one person there who offered a trip to go falconeering! No one was signing up for that one, so, of course, I did!

We spent three hours driving into the interior of Abu Dhabi towards the border of Oman. We passed camel ranches along the way and eventually found ourselves on a dirt road surrounded by sand dunes as far as I could see. We learned about the ancient art of falconeering, which included releasing the birds and watching them as they tracked and caught pigeons, and before we knew it, it was getting dark.

In the distance, we began to see additional vehicles approaching, which seemed odd since we were in the middle of the desert. One by one the trucks stopped and men dressed in traditional kandura became visible. The mother of our host disembarked her truck with a live lamb which she then killed and began to cook in an open pit fire. We sat there under the stars for hours eating lamb with saffron rice and drinking tea while speaking about some differences in our cultures, but more so the similarities of our people. It was pure magic!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Personally, I believe mentorship is about being constantly aware and seizing a moment which can be transformational, especially when we’re young, no matter what the profession. For me, those experiences happen when introspection and a strong dose of humility is at play. While I was in Japan, I was working with a chef and he turned to me and, in broken English, said, “You are a good cook, but you can be better if you kill your ego!” That changed my life.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

I am a firm believer that as a chef you need to give the customer what they want… for the most part. I believe that 70% of the preparation or cocktail should be recognizable and used as an entry point for people to engage, with the additional 30% being an ingredient that creates a moment of surprise and excitement. If we can do this well, customers will come back for more.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal’ for you?

The perfect meal for me is being at a table with family and friends enjoying great wine and well-crafted, thoughtful cuisine.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

I draw inspiration from everyday moments– music, movies, art, and my fellow chef friends. But, when I have the opportunity to hike or travel, I find that I’m truly inspired by the quiet beauty of nature and the diversity of culture around the world.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an initiative to help promote healthy eating. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Through our nonprofit organization, Pilot Light (www.pilotlightchefs.org), we are supporting students as they learn and advocate for informed choices. Our curriculum is intended to bridge the lessons they’re learning in their classrooms to the foods on their lunch trays, at home, and in their communities. Our mission is to create a world of knowledgeable and engaged changemakers for an equitable, sustainable, and accessible food future.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

When my wife Rachel and I moved into our neighborhood in Chicago, one of our commitments was, and still remains, to give back to our community. When Rachel became a member of the local school council, I began visiting the school and teaching children about salmon migration, among other food-related topics. This soon blossomed into Pilot Light (www.pilotlightchefs.org), a nonprofit organization I co-founded with two great friends, local chefs Jason Hammel and Paul Kahan, to formally structure a program focused on food education for Pre-K through 12th-grade students.

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was helped by your cause?

One wonderful story I would like to share takes place at one of the Chicago public elementary schools on the south side of Chicago, which at the time accepted Syrian refugee children. During a class that uses Pilot Light lessons, a young Syrian girl would not eat her lunch provided by the school because she was not familiar with American food. The lesson plan the teacher was using was about migration and how people have brought food customs from their land of origin to America. The next day, when the children opened their lunches, several of the students got up from their seats and brought this young girl food that was customary in Syria. This notable gesture from her classmates solidified the young girl as a part of the fabric of her classroom, proving to be a tremendous example of empathy through food education.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Get involved where you live. You do not have to travel far to have a meaningful impact.
  2. Engage with larger NGOs or national organizations which you gravitate towards. If every person would spend one hour per month with a group, the world would be a better place for all.
  3. Encourage your state representatives, congresspeople, and senators to adopt the Pilot Light Food Education standards which give teachers, students, and communities the guidelines for making healthy informed decisions (https://pilotlightchefs.org/what-we-do/what-is-food-education/standards-1-7/).

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Chef or Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. As a restaurateur, cooking is only about 20% of what you need to be proficient in to run a successful business.
  2. Self-evaluate what your talents are, then surround yourself with those people who are better than you at the rest.
  3. When you think you raised enough money for your dream project, know that you haven’t!
  4. Lean hard into genuine, meaningful hospitality as this is the core of our business. Great food has to follow this!
  5. Don’t be afraid to change. As Winston Churchill once said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

That’s a tough question! Every dish and cocktail we serve at our various establishments have an incredible amount of consideration behind it. No matter what you order, our hope is that it will always bring back a terrific memory, whether it calls on a previous sensory experience or sparks a new one.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Hands down, President Barack Obama. His inspiration has been instrumental in encouraging community engagement and activism. During his presidency, his administration’s focus on the health and well-being of America has, and continues to be, transformational. It would be an honor to join him for lunch.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Pilot Light (www.pilotlightchefs.org)

Instagram/Facebook: @pilotlightchefs

Folkart Management (www.folkartmanagement.com)

Instagram/Facebook: @folkartmanagement

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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