Ryan Poli’s Tavernita
Can the handsome young chef’s new concept prove he’s more than a pretty face?
The first thing you see are the eyes: big and hazel, intense and bright. Ryan Poli’s sad and searching eyes.
Next, the hair. Shiny waves that shimmer black-blue, like Superman’s. Slicked-back strands that break free and fall in front of the eyes. Eventually you get to the face. A sweet smile with a hint of mischief.
Much was made of Poli’s looks when he was the face of Perennial. Before that, he was the face of the now-defunct Butter. Now, Poli, 34, is lending his face to a new project: Tavernita, the much-anticipated, Spanish-leaning restaurant set to open in River North later this year.
On the surface, it looks as if this pretty boy has had a charmed career. He traveled from Chicago to California to Spain to, um, Wheeling; he cooked for some of the country’s best chefs; he ran restaurants at a precociously young age. But with those successes came setbacks: Poli says he was dicked around, lied to and stabbed in the back enough times to develop trust issues. At Tavernita, where for the first time Poli will be a partner, the chef hopes to put those experiences behind him. And maybe he’ll rise above being just the pretty face in food magazines, too.
If the gambit works, it will be yet another triumph for a guy who, when he decided to pursue cooking after graduating from Mount Carmel High School on Chicago’s South Side in 1995, didn’t know the first thing about being a chef. At the time, he’d barely expanded his palate beyond peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Hell, the guy had never eaten so much as a spoonful of mayonnaise.
A mandatory career quiz he had taken earlier in the school year had come back with the words culinary arts on the results. But college didn’t interest Poli—“I’m just not one for school,” he says—so he started his post–high school education at the now-closed Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in suburban Summit, where theatergoers got a choice of chicken, fish or beef, along with a scoop of rice pilaf and steamed vegetables. Poli was immediately taken with it. “It felt like something I could do,” he recalls.
So after a year at Candlelight—and at the urging of a mentor—Poli moved up to Midlothian Country Club, where he worked banquets, pastries, lunch, the line. There, for the first time, he was exposed to cookbooks. One day, he picked up the cookbook of Gotham Bar & Grill in New York.
“[There] was, like, a lobster salad with caviar sauce and endive sticking out of it. And I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that there was a chef out there making this type of food. And then it was like I was a sponge. Anything I could get my hands on,” Poli says.
In 1997, he applied for and was accepted to a chef’s program at Disney World in Orlando, where he hoped to work at one of the resort’s upscale restaurants and rub elbows with bigger-name chefs.
“So when I got down there, they’re like, ‘You’re working at ESPN Zone.’ I was like, ‘No, no…I have my knife.…’
“They said, ‘You’re working the wings station.’ ” He tossed wings, miserable, for a few weeks, then quit.
Back in Chicago, he knocked on the door of Mango in River North. He said to the chef, Steve Chiappetti: “Listen, I don’t have a lot of experience, but I will work really hard for you. I wanna work downtown.” Poli’s passion intrigued him. “I saw that cooking was like this ride for him, up and down, like a roller coaster,” Chiappetti remembers. “His food and his ideas are aggressively out there—most people love it, some might hate it—but it’s basically Ryan Poli on a plate.” Chiappetti gave him a position on the line. Poli was now where he’d remain: in Chicago’s fine-dining scene.