Ryan Poli’s Tavernita
Can the handsome young chef’s new concept prove he’s more than a pretty face?
SPAIN AND ARIZONA, 2007
Poli was sleeping in the basement of famed San Sebastian restaurant Martín Berasategui, a dozen other chefs strewn around him on bunk beds. He’d been living in various restaurants’ basements, or sometimes in pensiones, for months, doing prep, working the line and collapsing onto his bunk again. He had no expenses—the restaurants where he interned fed and sheltered him. Wexler, who had sent him on this research mission, paid for his cell phone. He worked like this for nine months, until he finally got the call he’d been waiting for: Wexler felt he had found the right space for the restaurant. It was time for Poli to move to Arizona.
“My time in Spain was really a high point in my life,” Poli recalls. “My time in Arizona was a low.”
Poli had every reason to trust and like Wexler. He and Poli had been talking for almost a year about this restaurant—and the dude did send Poli to Spain for all that time, and flew him to Arizona. But, according to Poli, Wexler began acting strangely soon after he arrived from Spain. He pressed Poli to give him recipes—he wanted to photocopy them. He hired a sous chef and a general manager without Poli’s input, and a lease on the space still hadn’t been signed. And he was pressuring Poli to sign a long and complicated contract.
Poli became suspicious. He cleaned out his checking account to show the contract to a lawyer. A few days later, the lawyer phoned: “How well do you know this guy?” Poli was expecting to be named a 50/50 managing partner. Instead, the chef says, Wexler listed him as an at-will employee, able to be fired at any time. Poli dissolved the relationship.
Reached in Arizona, where he’s now managing partner of NOCA restaurant, Wexler says Poli’s recollection “is not accurate.” Poli left the partnership because “Ryan missed Chicago a lot,” Wexler says. “I think it just was an easier thing for him to go to work back there.”
But Poli had no money to move back to Chicago. Still in Arizona, he desperately applied for jobs—everywhere from Arizona to as far away as China. He used a credit card to pay rent. His girlfriend at the time sent him ramen noodles from Chicago so he could eat. Broke and depressed, Poli put a moving truck on his credit card and drove to Chicago, where, at age 30, he moved back in with his parents.