Matthias Merges Credit: Courtesy Folkart Management

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This week Mike Sula reviews Mordecai, the new fine-dining restaurant that has joined Big Star and Smoke Daddy in the Hotel Zachary, across from Wrigley Field. According to Sula, it’s another hit from chef Matthias Merges and his hospitality company, Folkart Management. Merges has been busy lately—it’s just six months ago that he and celebrity chef Graham Elliot (Top Chef, MasterChef, et al) opened the Randolph Street spot Gideon Sweet. But Merges, who for many years was Charlie Trotter’s right-hand man, has long been an entrepreneurial sort. In fact, as recounted in Sula’s 2014 feature “What happens when all-star chefs get in bed with Big Food,” he’s partly responsible for the popularization of one of the techniques that have come to epitomize modern fine dining: sous vide cooking.

In the late 90s, when Merges was Trotter’s chef de cuisine, he spearheaded developing Trotter-branded in-flight meals for United Airlines. That hooked him up with a Virginia company, Cuisine Solutions, that introduced him to sous vide, a technique that involves circulating vacuum-sealed food in a low-temperature water bath to ensure even cooking and maximum juiciness. As Sula tells it,

Cuisine Solutions had pioneered sous vide on an industrial scale, using it to manufacture precooked food that it sold to large institutions like hotels, airlines, and the military. The company had a vested interest in introducing the technique to top U.S. chefs. . . . And in Merges the company found an eager adherent.

“I remember one day when I’m cooking on the line—it’s so brutal,” he recalls. “It’s like, ‘I wish I can manipulate the temperature and control it to a point that is so much more refined than I can do with my hands.’ I’m like, ‘There has to be a way to get this [technology] from this million-square-foot factory into a 900-square-foot kitchen.'”

Trouble was, there were no affordable, readily available immersion circulators on the market. Merges picked up the phone and called PolyScience, in Niles, which manufactures high-precision temperature-controlled medical and industrial equipment. He reached a customer service rep who had no idea what he was talking about but transferred him to the company’s president, Philip Preston, an avid home cook.

Preston had never heard of the sous vide method, but he was fascinated. He took one of his immersion circulators to Trotter’s and Merges told him all about the technique. Within eight months Preston had formed a culinary unit in his company. “We ended up with probably about 13 of our units in just the Trotter’s kitchen,” he says. Today sous vide cooking is ubiquitous in fine-dining restaurants in the U.S., and PolyScience is the leading supplier of immersion circulators to restaurant kitchens.

Sula’s piece also highlights Grant Achatz, Rick Bayless, Ina Pinkney, Homaro Cantu protege Chris Jones of Just Mayo, and Paul Kahan of One Off Hospitality (Blackbird, Big Star, the Publican, et al). The last, a longtime member of Lean Cuisine’s Culinary Roundtable, has worked with Nestlé food technologists to develop cheffy-ish prepared meals like mushroom mezzaluna ravioli—and may even have had a hand in creating Taco Bell’s 7-Layer Burrito.

Those are just a few innovations that have come through seemingly unlikely collaborations between local chefs—all distinguished by their commitment to local and sustainable food—and multinational food corporations.

“When you’re young and you’re a chef, you’re like, ‘I can’t learn anything from these big companies,'” Merges told Sula. “As a matter of fact you can, and you can learn a lot.”