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Ryan Poli is wary. "There is no drama," he says about his sudden departure from Mercadito, the originally New York-based, now Chicago-focused company with which he opened Tavernita and Little Market Brasserie. "Alfredo [Sandoval, one of the owners] is a good friend of mine, we have a great relationship. The door is open, maybe I'll do something with them in the future. I don't want to put them in a bad light."
But clearly he knows how people are going to interpret the move—as a big blowup between partners. He tells me he's already dealt with one media outlet sniffing for the scoop on the dirt. That's not what his giving it all up is about, he wants me to know.
And as he explains it, I realize that what it's about is things like exactly what I'm doing: Trying to make drama out of the life of a guy who just wants to make food. A guy who wanted the head-down kitchen life, the brotherhood of cooks, and found himself reading about his hair in magazines instead.
"I want to go and travel, do some stages in kitchens that are inspiring to me," he explains when I ask what his plans are. "I want to go off the grid, reconnect with food. I want to work on a farm. I want to talk to chefs I respect and see how other people do things."
Poli first came to attention in his mid-20s at the short-lived Butter, owned by Jason Chan (Juno), which earned praise for its modern but not molecular food from John Mariani in Esquire. A few false starts and a trip to Spain later, he joined Boka Restaurant Group as chef of Perennial, and talked about doing a Spanish concept with them, which in retrospect they seem to have been less than fully excited about. Then, somewhat surprisingly, he jumped to Mercadito, at that point known for upscale Mexican joints that weren't exactly scaring Rick Bayless with their mastery of authentic Mexican cuisine. It was easy to see the appeal of the deal—get in on the ground floor with a fast-growing company. But it's been harder to see that the results lived up to it, with Tavernita the River North drinking-spot version of his Spanish concept and Little Market Brasserie a low-wattage, hotel-based version of the kind of new-retro comfort-food joint that has Boka's Little Goat Diner packing 'em in.
"I could keep opening restaurants and keep growing with the company," he says. "But I wanted to take a step back and slow down my career. I want to think about what's important to me and what I want to get out of this.
"I know I'm passing up an unbelievable opportunity," he adds. "It wasn't an easy decision. I still wake up and think to myself, man, what the fuck did you do? But I believe in the decision I made. I feel like the restaurant industry is out of control. When I was a cook, you had a restaurant, and then maybe you had a cookbook. Now you have a restaurant, then you have a TV show, then a bistro, then ten restaurants and a line of pots and pans.
"We're getting away from restaurants being about inviting people into our home and cooking them a meal. We're losing touch with that."
I try to get across that I understand that. That it's not personal drama; sometimes you find yourself looking at a career path that makes perfect sense . . . just not for you. But it's morning and my questions are clumsy and everything I say comes out sounding like I'm still digging for dirt.
He goes on anyway. "I miss being in the kitchen, training the guys," he says. "I haven't thought about a next step. I'm not going to do Facebook updates and promotional stuff, like hey, join me for the next Amigos de Pintxo [a Monday-night event at Tavernita]. I might blog once in a while, something more thoughtful about what I'm doing, but I'm getting off social media. I don't have time for that shit any more."
He's too polite to say it, but it's hard not to think that "talking about myself so the media can romanticize chefs" probably qualifies as "that shit" too. Our chat wraps up quickly after that.
"I'm entering the unknown, and I don't know when I'm going to be back," Ryan Poli says on his way out the open door.