Yesterday, the chef Ryan Poli told Eater that he was resigning as the executive chef of Perennial to become a chef/partner at Tavernita (151 W. Erie St.; no phone yet), the new project from the partnership that brought Mercadito to Chicago, New York, and Miami. Poli told Dish about the move, his past, and his future.
Dish: You’ve been at Perennial since it opened, right?
Ryan Poli: Yes. I started with the Boka Group in February of 2008.
D: Why are you leaving Perennial?
RP: Alfredo [Sandoval] and the Mercadito group offered me a great opportunity to be a chef/partner with them. [Tavernita is] a concept that’s very dear to my heart—European-inspired small plates.
D: Do they have other chef/partners?
RP: They have Patricio, who is chef/partner of the Mercadito division. He is Alfredo’s brother.
D: Are you the first person outside the family to be a chef/partner?
RP: Yes. That sounds like The Godfather. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
D: Are you already dreaming up dishes for Tavernita?
RP: I am. We are going to do a braised octopus with some olive oil–poached potatoes and paprika. We are going to get really creative with different types of crudos. I want vegetables to be a main focus of the restaurant also. A lot of vegetables. I’m thinking of a caramelized onion with wild mushrooms for one of the crostini, with a Gorgonzola cheese just kind of melted over the top of the mushrooms.
D: Where do you see yourself in five years?
RP: This is a great opportunity with this group now. We are opening two [Tavernita] restaurants, one here and one in Miami. They have plans to do more restaurants and different concepts. So that is the goal right now—I am planning to help them grow our restaurant group.
RP: [Tavernita] is very casual and price point will be lower [than Perennial]. I wouldn’t put it in terms of Big Star and Xoco. I would put it in terms of maybe Avec, The Purple Pig, The Spotted Pig. That’s kind of where the concept is leaning—small plates around those price points.
D: The coverage of this move has been giving you the celebrity-chef treatment.
RP: I’m a cook first and always. I want to cook great food and want people to come to the restaurant and I want them to come back. I want them enjoy the experience at the restaurant that I’m at. Celebrity is a strong word. Vince Vaughn is a celebrity. Robert De Niro is a celebrity. I don’t put myself in those terms.
D: Who is your biggest inspiration?
RP: Thomas Keller (The French Laundry). I consider him a mentor. He instilled a lot of my values and attention to detail that I have. Jean Banchet was a huge influence also. I worked for him at his last hurrah at Le Français in 1999 to 2001.
D: How did you land that gig?
RP: I sent him a resumé. I was a kid, living at home. He called me at home, and my dad woke me up and said, “There is some strange French guy on the phone for you.”
Photograph: Esther Kang