Ryan Poli’s Tavernita
Can the handsome young chef’s new concept prove he’s more than a pretty face?
CALIFORNIA, SPAIN AND BACK TO CHICAGO, 2005
After Mango, Poli amassed a working history of fine-dining restaurants all over the country: He completed a year-and-a-half-long stint with Jean Banchet at Le Francais in Wheeling from 1999 to 2000. With Banchet’s help, he then scored a dream stage: working with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Northern California. Keller liked Poli and hired him on as a chef; Poli’s first day was Grant Achatz’s (Alinea, Next) last. While Le Francais taught him classic French techniques, French Laundry taught him to put those techniques to contemporary use.
Hoping to continue his training, he sent letters to every big name in Paris. Nobody called. So he went to Spain instead, which proved a turning point—it was there the chef became enchanted with Spanish food, a passion that has shaped his career ever since. But it would also mark an end to Poli’s breezy, innocent ascent up the proverbial ladder. Until this point, a combination of luck and hard work had provided Poli with amazing opportunities (save that stint at ESPN Zone). He had not experienced much disappointment. After staging in Spain for ten months, he would get a taste of it.
Shortly after Poli returned home broke in 2004, he heard the not-yet-open Butter in Greektown was looking for a chef. Poli landed a tasting with owner Jason Chan and was offered the job that night. It was February 2005. The restaurant opened in April.
This was around the time Alinea established Chicago as the new food center of the universe. Poli suddenly seemed in regular orbit. Travel + Leisure was just one of several magazines that gushed about the chef (both his looks and his cooking), saying “[Butter] is a sexy backdrop for the handsome 29-year-old’s imaginative New American menu.” He felt ready for the scrutiny. “I knew I could do it,” he says. The place seemed busy, and most reviews were positive (except for TOC’s, which cited inconsistent meals and noted that despite having “the looks and the kitchen chops to be a hit,” the restaurant felt “lukewarm”).
But ten months after opening, Really Nice Restaurants, the group that owns Nick’s Fishmarket, bought Butter and pushed out Chan. Executives told Poli they wanted to keep him on; they wanted a chef-driven restaurant in their portfolio. Yet a year after taking over, Poli remembers, “they walked in and they fired me.”
Their reasoning: “They said I wasn’t a nice person.” Apparently, Poli was too “intense” in the kitchen. (Numerous calls and e-mails to Really Nice requesting comment were not returned.)
“I didn’t really take it to heart,” Poli says. “I know I’m a nice guy.”
But if Poli didn’t let his firing affect his impression of how nice he is, it eventually would affect his confidence. This was the first in a string of jobs that wouldn’t work out, a series of experiences that would leave him paranoid for years. But at the time, all he knew was he needed a job, and one of Butter’s regulars, a guy named Eliot Wexler, wanted Poli to open a restaurant with him in Arizona. Wexler was a nice guy. A funny guy. And he was offering to send Poli back to Spain for more hands-on training. What could possibly go wrong?