Chez Nous executive chef and part owner Jill Mathias fell in love with downtown’s Westside neighborhood when she moved to Charleston two decades ago. Mathias lives in a two-story, circa-1930s home just blocks from her original Carolina Street residence.
“When I first moved to Charleston, I couldn’t get anybody to rent to me sight unseen,” she said. “So two days before I was supposed to move down here, I found a guy who had just renovated a house on Carolina Street and I moved there. I loved it.”
Mathias opened Chez Nous less than a mile away in 2014. The Payne Court restaurant has become more than just a second home for the French-trained chef. It helps that the eatery is located in a quaint two-story Charleston single, but it’s also the place where she spent five years in the kitchen working side by side with her husband Juan Cassalett, who’s now the executive chef at Malagon. It’s the place where Mathias handwrites a menu with two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts each day. It’s the place where her dream restaurant became a reality.
“I work a ton but it’s pretty amazing to walk around the corner and come to work in the morning and see this courtyard and little kitchen,” said Mathias of the restaurant, located in an alleyway just off Coming Street. “I think it would be different if it wasn’t exactly the restaurant I wanted, and I’m a part of it, which makes a huge difference for me.”
Cassalett departed Chez Nous in 2019, but there are still two cooks in the kitchen at the Mathias-Cassalett household. Mathias said they have a system.
“I actually do more of the cooking at home when we do decide to cook. We’ll do more cuisines that we don’t have often, like Indian or Asian food,” she said. “I like the lighter dishes — kind of like the way that we cook at Chez Nous.”
Chez Nous and Malagon are both open six days a week, meaning the couple’s challenge isn’t what to cook at home — it’s when to eat.
“Sometimes it’s late night; sometimes we’ll go for a super long lunch,” Mathias said. “That’s one of our favorites, just hanging out into the late afternoon.”
A different kind of Thanksgiving
Mathias will cook for Thanksgiving, but it’s not going to be what you’d expect, in part because she didn’t grow up with traditional Thanksgivings.
“All of my family lived in Wisconsin, so we would usually go there for Christmas and not Thanksgiving,” she said. “So my parents always just cooked random things for Thanksgiving. Juan is from Colombia and his mom was a single mom and doctor, so they didn’t really do the whole traditional thing.”
Taking the place of turkey later this month will be roasted chicken, a preparation that often finds its way onto the Chez Nous menu.
“Food really just brings people together, and just having a simple plate of chicken and a conversation is really nice,” Mathias said. “We finally agreed that none of us really like turkey, and if you’re going to put a lot of work into it and have all these people come, you should probably have something you like.”
There will, however, be traditional sides on the menu, including a dish she grew up eating called Marcia’s potatoes.
“It’s just potatoes that are cooked and you shred them on a box grader and then you fold in cheddar cheese, evaporated milk, sour cream and scallions — it’s so delicious,” she said. “It’s one of those things that you always have at Thanksgivings.”
Food passion developed in college
Mathias grew up in Fargo-Moorhead, a metropolitan area located on the border of North Dakota and Minnesota. She wasn’t raised in the kitchen — she found her calling later in life while attending the University of Minnesota where she studied art history.
“It sounds so cheesy and cliche, but when I was in college we used to have these dinner parties all the time. I said to myself, ‘This makes me so much happier than all the other stuff that I’m doing,’ so that’s kind of what led me down that path,” Mathias said.
She moved to Charleston in 2000 to attend Johnson & Wales culinary school where she was drawn to French techniques and flavors.
“I like the simplicity of it even though there’s a lot of technique behind it,” she said. “All of that country-style cooking that you find in Spain, Italy and France. It’s cooking out of necessity.”
Chez Nous’ handwritten menus are one of the hallmarks of Mathias’ style that arose out of necessity rather than aesthetics. The day before Chez Nous opened, Mathias said the menus were written on mirrors inside the restaurant.
“Nobody could read it because the light that was reflecting on the mirror. That was an ‘Oh my God what are we going to do?’ type of moment. So we had to decide who had the best handwriting out of the four of us,” she said.
The group chose hers — in fact, Mathias said she’s always written in the pseudo-cursive swooping script still found on Chez Nous’ menu six years later.
Down time at home
Mathias spends her down time at home reading or playing the piano — she recently started taking lessons again. She spends as much time as she can in her spacious backyard and cherishes long walks in Hampton Park with Cassalett and their pandemic-purchased pup, an English cream golden retriever named Watts after Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.
The surrounding Westside streets and parks are an extension of her Sumter Street home. Although the neighborhood has changed over the last 20 years, the growth adds to its allure, according to Mattias.
“It’s just interesting to see because that’s really the only way the city can keep moving, so now it’s nice to see that there’s restaurants moving into the neighborhood and it’s becoming a little community of its own,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful, underrated part of town.”