A Small Restaurant Grows Big Ideas
BY HELEN MITTERNIGHT
“ Chez Nous is not for everybody. It’s simple, homey, rustic. For some people, it’s outside of their comfort zone that they don’t get to have more choices for dinner. Most people love it, but there’s always a handful who don’t.”
Executive Chef Jill Mathias of Chez Nous says that the tiny restaurant isn’t for everyone and she’s just fine with that.
For one thing, the place closes for a couple of weeks in the summer. In fact, by the time you read this, Jill and her husband, who recently left Chez Nous to open tapas bar Malagon, may be traveling to Rome and the South of France. Jill will be clutching a notebook to record anything that inspires her and revisiting the sources of the food she offers at Chez Nous, mostly French with influences of Italy and Spain.
“It’s very European to close down. For us, it’s a good way to give everybody a break,” she says during a conversation in the brief lull between lunch and dinner service.
Chez Nous sits in a tucked-away alley and Jill’s attention to authenticity makes it feel like the alley starts in the Holy City and ends in the City of Lights. Upstairs and down, the historic Charleston house seats only 36, with another 20 on the patio if the weather is nice. Diners can easily eavesdrop on neighboring tables and the intimacy can make you feel like you’ve stumbled into a French bistro, far from the Charleston tourist trade.
Another contrarian practice is to offer only two appetizers, entrees and desserts every night. The limited menu, which changes daily, is scrawled in Jill’s sometimes illegible handwriting.
“We joke all the time about my handwriting,” she says. “[Chez Nous] is not for everybody. It’s simple, homey, rustic. For some people, it’s outside of their comfort zone that they don’t get to have more choices for dinner. Most people love it, but there’s always a handful who don’t.”
The menu, drafted on Sundays for the upcoming week, is dependent on what local purveyors have. Sometimes, for example, berries that were planned for a dessert change depending on what’s ripe that week.
The kitchen is minuscule—there isn’t room for a walk-in refrigerator, so supplies go into either a reach-in cooler, a reach-in freezer or one of two low-boys. But, Jill says the space limitations restrict how much food she can buy in a good way—Jill is dedicated to eliminating food waste.
“It affects how we plan the menu,” she says. “If we have a braised meat, we know that later in the week we’ll have that meat in a ravioli or a ragout. Or, if we have salad one day, we’ll do a different thing with the greens the next day. We very rarely have proteins left over, so a lot of it is usually produce-driven.”
As Jill gets ready for her vacation, she encourages her staff to take the time to learn and be inspired as well, and she intends to bring the knowledge she gleans back home with her to share.
“I can’t be upset with their performance if I’m not giving them the tools to be successful. I want them to keep growing in that sense.”
That opportunity for growth is what’s keeping Jill at Chez Nous. But the growth she’s seeking is educational; she’s happy with the intimate size of Chez Nous.
Chez Nous is at 6 Payne Court in Charleston.
Photos by: FERRIS KAPLAN