Community Chef Ryan Poli of
- "Fish Tacos": Hiramasa Sashimi, Mango-Papaya-Serrano Chili Relish, Avocado Purée, and Tortilla Infusion
Ryan Poli thinks it’s a great time to be a chef in Chicago—a city that stands by his philosophy that “vegetables are the new pork.” One of the original members of the Pilot Light Project, Poli is part of a group who’s mission is to bring culinary arts into Chicago’s schools. Thanks to charities like Common Threads, where Poli sits on the executive chef board, chefs in the classrooms are becoming a familiar sight in Chicago. And now, as part of Pilot Light, Poli can be found in schools, teaching children about how food ties into our everyday lives.
Poli credits his start in the culinary arts to a high school career aptitude test, which pegged him as a chef. The idea of a knife-wielding, white-coated future of crafting perfect canapés was so appealing that Poli didn’t hesitate to turn this recommendation into reality. Self-taught, Poli spent 10 years traveling abroad and working his way through a number of influential kitchens, including Jean Banchet’s Le Francais, Sergi Arola’s La Broche in Madrid, Spain, and Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. In 2004, he open Chicago’s Butter, which in 2005 was voted one of the country’s best new restaurants by Esquire, and one of the city’s leading restaurants by Travel + Leisure.
In 2007, Poli returned to Spain, with stages at top Spanish restaurants, including Martin Berasategui’s Lasarte and the Roca brothers’ El Celler de Can Roca. He brought his experience back home to a post as the executive chef of Lincoln Park’s casually elegant and widely acclaimed Perennial. Throughout his career, Poli has cultivated a deep respect for sustainability in food and a love for Spanish and Latin cuisines. And even on the brink of opening his new venture, Tavernita, Poli still makes outreach a priority, devoting time to a younger generation through good food and nutritional awareness.
Interview with Chef Ryan Poli of Tavernita - Chicago ILEmily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Ryan Poli: What inspired me? I took a career test in high school. They send it off somewhere and it comes back, always, for some sort of trade. Mine suggested culinary arts. [My counselor] must have sent my information to Johnson & Wales, the application and everything. That's what I wanted to do, to be this guy with a tall white hat, making canapés, everything so perfect. So I went off to get a job down the street and never looked back.
EB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
RP: Some yes and some no. I think some people do well at school. I'm not a school person. I’m a hands-on person. I think they should do both, go to school and work at the same time and see what they like.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
RP: Keep it simple and remember the classics and classic techniques, and have restraint; I think it's important for chefs to have restraint, to be able to take three ingredients and make them great and let the guests have what they want, especially in this day and age. Offer great food and great service at a reasonable price and in a restaurant with great ambiance.
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
RP: Make sure they want to do this; get a job at a restaurant first.
EB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
RP: I do a lot of charity and non-profit events. I sit on the chefs’ advisory board of Common Threads, which teaches young, inner-city, underprivileged children about food and education; we teach them how to cook. That’s one thing that I’m heavily involved in. I’m also involved in kind of a project that’s just starting to get legs now, the Pilot Light project.
EB: How did the Pilot Light Project come about?
RP: I started it with four other chefs, based on the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign. We go into a school and we cook for them in the cafeteria one day. What we’re trying to do is help change the curriculum so they’ll learn more about food and how to eat properly; we’re working with teachers and principals to help sculpt and change the curriculum, to get food into the lesson plan of the day. We want to integrate culinary arts in the classroom.
EB: How long has it taken for the concept to mature?
RP: We’ve been working on it since we came back from the White House, six to seven months now.
EB: Who’s involved?
RP: Paul Kahan, Matt Merges, Jason Hammel from Lula Café, and Koren Grieveson from avec. We’re all excited about it. We’re excited to talk to kids and really kind of see how we can influence their eating habits, and really educate them about what’s going on and how to eat right. We’re all shocked to see what they were eating at the cafeteria. It’s an eye-opening experience to see what the kids are eating.
EB: How did the idea come about?
RP: A couple of us went to the White House’s Let’s Move campaign. When we came back, we wanted to try to figure out how we wanted to get involved. A lot of it seemed very overwhelming. We started having meetings and inviting other nonprofits, hearing their stories. Matt Merges’s children go to the school, and he was already there doing some curriculum stuff.
EB: So how far are you developed?
RP: We have a Twitter account right now, but in the next six months to a year we’re really going to start up. More chefs are interested and want to get on board. And we’re doing another cooking demo for kids in March; we’ll start a garden and take them to the market. It’s really in the beginning stages. We’re going to have a website or a blog.
EB: What steps are you taking to become a sustainable restaurant?
RP: We buy as much local as we can, especially in the summer. It’s hard to source locally in the Midwest in the winter. In summer, we’re right across the street from the Green City Market. We have a great relationship with the farmers that go there. We buy as much produce sustainably and locally as we can in the summer. We try to have all sustainable fish.
We worked very closely with Carl Galvin from Supreme Lobster. He’s really carved a niche for himself for sourcing for chefs. When I decided I wanted to use all sustainable fish, he’s the guy I went to. Sometimes there are things that aren’t available, and the public is going have to become more aware of it. We might have halibut on the menu today, but we might have fluke the next day. It’s our job to educate diners. We’re offering something absolutely sustainable and good quality.
EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
RP: Fire people.
EB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
RP: Have more patience with my career.
EB: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
RP: Showing up in Spain. I stayed a whole year and made it through. I relied on myself and on myself only. Going to the grocery store, figuring out what’s open when.
EB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
RP: Chicago. It’s where I grew up; it’s where I’m from. You never know where life is going to take you. I think it’s just a great time to be a young chef in Chicago right now.