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Keeping It Simple

Keeping It Simple
March 2019

Chef couple Jill Mathias and Juan Casselett enjoy a straightforward style of cooking, whether for a party or party of two

A fresh French-inspired spread (left) by Jill Mathias and Juan Cassalett (right)

They say no one is ever prepared to open a restaurant. Whether or not that’s true, Juan Casselett and Jill Mathias are grateful they’ve had each other to rely on during the process. The couple co-own and run Chez Nous—a rustic, French-inspired Cannonborough gem—where Jill is the executive chef and Juan is sous. But soon, Juan will lead the kitchen at their second project with business partners Fanny and Patrick Panella: Spanish-style taperia and market Malagón.

“We can always depend on each other,” says Juan. “If I say, ‘I can’t figure this out,’ she’s always there.” Though their day-to-day schedules will change with the opening of Malagón (named after Juan’s Spanish grandfather), for now the couple keeps busy together, preparing for their small plates-focused Spring Street restaurant.

Over the past six months, every Monday—Juan and Jill’s one day off together—the chefs have met with the Panellas to hash out Malagón’s details, everything from menu items to paint colors, silverware to operating hours, and a whole lot of recipe testing in between. Think dishes like tomates con atun (tomatoes with cured tuna), buñuelos de bacalao (crisp salt cod fritters), and rossejat negro (Catalonian squid ink pasta).

Some of their brainstorming sessions have lasted as long as eight hours, but Juan and Jill consider the meticulous planning essential. Even when quibbling over the pros and cons of a certain water glass, Juan says it was “all for the benefit of the restaurant.”

When the pair have time to themselves, they don’t sweat the small stuff. Jill takes advantage of Sundays with all-day recipe projects. “And I love the leftovers,” says Juan. He spends his free time testing recipes for Malagón, playing with pasta and meat-forward dishes in their recently remodeled kitchen. And on the rare occasions they get to cook together at home, their philosophy remains the same as what they practice at their restaurants: keep it simple.

(From Left to Right) Jill Mathias; local sea bass over hot charcoals; Juan Casselett

“For me, Chez Nous is probably cooking in its simplest form,” says Jill. “That’s the way I love to cook and that’s the way I love to eat.”

“Nothing we do is very difficult,” Juan adds. Of course “difficult” is a relative term. While appearing uncomplicated, their dishes are packed with complex flavors. The secret is in the techniques and tricks Juan and Jill use to elevate each recipe.

For instance, with the couple’s radish salad, Jill recommends using your hands to macerate the Parmesan, so the mixture gets creamy before you add the dressing. For the asparagus, hand-select long spears; the uniform size will ensure even cooking time.

As for grilling the fish, Jill and Juan believe local seafood is best with few trimmings: just garlic, lemon, and extra-virgin olive oil. This combination works well whether you’re using fresh sea bass, flounder, snapper, or even trout. And for dessert, Jill and Juan are fans of lemon mousse—a bright and fresh way to end a meal. No matter the dish, the bottom line for this chef couple is, as Juan says, to “let the ingredients do their thing.”

In the Kitchen with Jill Mathias & Juan Cassalett

Live: Downtown, on the Westside
Own: Chez Nous and the forthcoming Malagón
Juan on Jill’s cooking style: “She has this instinctual touch, where everything works just right. It’s amazing.”