Chef Charlie Socher talks about Cafe Matou and its closing


Charlie Socher stands infront of the sauce pans that he is packing up

Café Matou for me has always been a place for "special." Divinely special French food, special wine, special service and special "feel." A place where you can enjoy your dining companions. A place where you can hear them, providing an opportunity for conversation...imagine.

Restaurateur and chef extraordinaire Charlie Socher was visible over the years but I got to know some of the staff. Charlie seemed not to want to interact. That was ok, as long he kept all those special things happening.

Then the news..."Chef Charlie Socher is hanging up his saute pan and closing the door to Café Matou."

That rocked my gastronomic senses!  OMG...I have to have another meal there! OK... I did. Now what? Interview him...share him with others. OK...that follows...

Though his mother was a good cook, there appears to be no restaurant related careers or businesses in Charlie Socher's dna. There seems to be no other link via his education and then career in economics to link to cooking either.

So the reason? Enjoyment of good food and the dining experience along with it. Even in school with his first love interest, he saved money so they could go out and enjoy special dining experiences.

At age twenty-nine, having always thought about wanting to have a restaurant some day, he decided to quit his economics career and go to cooking school. That schooling was short lived when he felt that his ROI (return on investment) was very low. So, he decided to start working in the industry. His teacher apparently agreed in his ability to do that and he helped him in the search for employment.

In 1982 he decided to select from among the top three American restaurant cities and make it his base of operations. He was interested in the life of an urban dweller. He wanted to be able to dine on culture as well as food. Fortunately for all of us, he chose Chicago over New York and San Francisco.

He worked for Gabino Sotelino at Ambria then in Alouette in Highwood, Lettuce Entertain You, Michael Jordan's and others. But corporate life was not for him, He wanted his own smaller restaurant where he could deliver "special" at prices that more people could afford.


Susan, who retired from the bio medical field, is working with Charlie in Cafe Matou

With a small group, including his sister Susan, they bought the building at 1846 N. Milwaukee Ave. and opened Café Matou in 1997. Fine dining was brought to a section of Milwaukee Ave. that was a little tattered looking but had plenty of street parking.

In addition to the daily dining offerings, Charlie helped others have special occasions in his space. Several years ago, members of the choir at Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church on Leavitt in Ukrainian Village decided they wanted a special Russian dining experience. They took a Russian cookbook to him and said something like..."Here, cook a Russian meal, please." Having had the privilege of being part of that, I can report that it was sumptuous. It had an unbelievable number of courses. It was fabulously delicious and it, of course, had a hint of Charlie French.

Another such special event was for a friend of his who requested that he serve risotto because it was her new Italian husband's favorite dish. "She says that it was the best risotto that she has ever had. But, I think that she is just being nice. I had to use a cookbook for that one."

All those special times make one's business as beloved to its owner(s) as any family member. You start realizing that financially things are not going well or something else needs priority in your life. You start thinking about closing it or selling it. But it is like your can not sell it or destroy it!

The agony of reality and the emotion of the attachment does not allow you to speak those words out loud. Sometimes that goes on for a long time. "There was a couple that came in two to three times a month," Charlie explained. "Then, she lost her job about a year and a half ago and they came in once a month for awhile. Then rarely."

"Having a restaurant where our margins have not been high means that we have not financially made a lot of money over the years. We can not afford the hemorrhaging that we have been experiencing. So, we have to close the restaurant. It comes at a time when I realize that I don't do things in the city like I used to. Like museums and other things that I used to enjoy.

"Now I relax and enjoy riding my motorcycle. But it takes me forty-five minutes to get to a place where I can really ride it. Being in an urban area is not where I want to be anymore."

"You're going to spend your time riding a hog instead of cooking one?" I asked. He quickly said that technically he didn't because he has a BMW, but he appreciated the humor.

"Will you open another restaurant when you move up to Wisconsin?"

"Well first I have to get everything moved out of here and sell my house. Then we'll see. Starting another business up in the Mineral Point area is something I'd like to do. I have been getting my produce year around from people up there for quite some time. But I am not sure. It will depend what I can find, like a distressed restaurant for sale."

"Would you make it French?"

"Probably, that is what I know. If I did anything else, it would be out of cookbooks."

"How are you feeling about closing on Sunday?"

"Strange. Having your own business where no one can tell you what to do gives you great joy even though you do have headaches and give up some things. Since they found out we were closing, people walk over and thank me. They paid me to dine here but they thank me. It's very gratifying.

"To know that I have made a small difference in some people's lives..that is a nice feeling."

Editor's Note to Charlie:
That special feeling you wanted people to have when they came to enjoy your special creations... It worked and I look forward to seeing you in Wisconsin.

Let me know when you are ready to open and we'll get a whole lot of people to come enjoy "special" again.

In the meantime...thanks for the memories.....Elaine


charlie socher

Charlie: Come back to Alaska and teach the oil companies to cook better food for their North Slope operations.

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