By Brenna O’Dea
I recently had the chance to chat with one of our founders and absolute favorite chefs of Chicago, Matthias Merges. Where to begin…A10, Billy Sunday, Finch Beer Co. AND Finch Kitchen, Yusho Chicago AND Hyde Park…if you have not yet experienced a meal at one of his many gems, stop reading right now, go grab a bite, we will be here waiting for you later…
I have had the pleasure of meeting Chef Merges on a few brief occasions, and his warmth and compassion shines through in everything he does. At my first marketing meeting this summer, we gathered at the newest addition to his foodie family, Billy Sunday…no, not the baseball player, the lovely restaurant that sits in the center of bustling Logan Square. With the late birthday that I have, I was not yet 21 and could not partake in consumption of the delicious looking libations offered. Matthias sprung into action to make sure I felt welcome and comfortable. He immediately requested for a special custom soda to be made just for me. I enjoyed every perfect pineapple sip. It was a good day.
For this interview, I began by asking Chef Merges about his own experience with food as a youngster, and how his love for the culinary arts first sparked. “Well, my mom was a terrible cook,” he began. He explained that the she did the best she could, but this usually included throwing some liver and onions together with a pound of butter for good measure. Matthias and his brothers were big readers and when they were around nine or ten years old they began reading cook books. Then one fine day, they discovered it, the dish that awakened his taste buds, sukiyaki. His father took them to the store to collect the ingredients. They prepared the meal and he finally realized, “oh my god, food is so delicious!” Matthias also made sure to tell me that today, his mom is a great cook.
I then inquired about Chef Merges’ favorite lesson to teach in the classroom. He explained that he loves teaching kids about the migration of salmon as a metaphor for the migration of people. He thinks it is fascinating how these fish leave their home, navigate through foreign waters, then return, just as humans, families, and children can travel the world and have diverse cultural experiences. He believes this is an important lesson to teach young children, and we couldn’t agree more.
We then discussed another important lesson, one that Matthias himself has learned through teaching: “Collaboration in classrooms is key.” He stated that the chefs and teachers must work together toward a common goal in order to “create lesson plans that are impactful and meaningful and create lasting memories.” Speaking of memories…Chef Merges shared one of his favorites from teaching that salmon lesson…
“We brought in the whole salmon with the guts and everything. It was winter so the fish was fattier at that time of year, the kids were so into it. I cut it and presented it raw and the kids actually ate raw salmon. They embraced it because they had learned about it, they might not even do that on their own.”
Never thought I’d say this…but I’m craving some salmon guts!
We then discussed why Chef Merges thinks is it important to teach children about food, and one key lesson he wants our readers to remember: “There is a need for groups to engage children early about nutrition and health, there are lots of groups talking about adults and health, but this does not trickle down to the family. The key to systemic change in the health of the nation is to start with kids early and build it into their everyday experiences.” And for Chef Merges’s last words on one takeaway about what we do at PL: “through collaboration, we are able to make change in children, families, and communities, and make a healthier America.”
‘Tis the season for holiday cheer and gift giving, and we are so proud to have chefs like Chef Merges helping us give food education to Chicago kids. We are lucky to have his wisdom and experience in both the kitchen and the classroom, along with some of our other incredible chefs, Jason Hammel, Paul Kahan, and Justin Large. Of course, we are also grateful for our dedicated teachers with whom our mission would not be possible. And with that, I will leave you with just a bit of homework: spend some time in the kitchen this holiday season. Teach your kids about where their food came from. Whether it be salmon fresh from the water, or the apple in their lunchbox, talk to them, ask them questions, answer theirs, and always make sure to serve up a side of education with your meal.