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Ryan Poli on Tavernita and Channeling Spain

Photo: Drew Templeton

In a matter of days, the noted Chicago chef Ryan Poli will open Tavernita. The 300-seat restaurant in River North is a collaboration with the folks from Mercadito Hospitality designed to channel the moods and flavors of the tapas bars, pintxo spots, and classic taverns Poli encountered while working in Spain; it is one of the most anticipated openings of the year.

Yesterday, Poli got on the phone to talk about how he fell in love with Spain (spoiler: part of it has to do with Joan Roca's mother cooking him lunch), why he's veered from the Michelin path to focus on casual dining, and what he hopes to achieve at the new restaurant.

How close are you to opening?
We're waiting on the city for inspections. It got really tricky around the holidays because a lot of inspectors were on vacation, so it looks like it's going to open just after the new year.

The space is finished?
Yeah. We're just putting in the finishing details. The kitchen is ready to go, and we're doing lots of training with the waitstaff.

I know you worked at The French Laundry, but what I'm most interested in is how you fell in love with Spain, the country that seems to be the strongest influence on what you do now.
I was just finishing up at The French Laundry and I wanted to work in France. I was dead-set on continuing my French training. I had worked at Le Francais with Jean Banchet and had learned classical, Bocuse-style food, and then I went to The Laundry, which was modern French, kind of American. So I sought out all the great French chefs: Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Bras, Guy Savoy. I sent out my resumés, but it was really disheartening, because no one contacted me back. Michel Bras was the only one that emailed me back, but he said they were full. It was extremely frustrating.

I had a friend who was working at Arzak, and he told me that I should check out Spain, that it was a lot easier to get a stage there. I knew what was going on at elBulli and had followed a few other restaurants there.

When was this?
It was 2003.

So elBulli was just about to blow up?
elBulli was something that insiders kind of knew about, but the general public had no idea what was going on in Spain at that point. Mugaritz had just started to be a very creative restaurant, the kind of place that would study the DNA of ducks to cook them better. But mainly, the top restaurants were the three-stars in the Basque Country.

Back to the story.
So I sent my resumés to a whole bunch of chefs, but I don't think I sent it to elBulli. I sent it to Mugaritz, to Martin Berasategui, to Sergi Arola [La Broche] in Madrid. They all contacted me immediately, within a day, saying they had spots. Sergi was the most inviting. He spoke English and found me a place to stay, so he made it easier for me. I ended up staying there for like a year.

I went with the intention of learning the crazy style of food there — the warm ice creams, the agar-agar. But what I really took from it was the street food. The energy of the tapas bars: walking in there, having a couple of bites, and then walking down the street and doing the same but different thing somewhere else, bouncing around and having a few beers.

I came back to the States, opened a restaurant called Butter, and when I left Butter, I went back to Spain because I had some time off. I wanted to learn Spanish pastries so I could make the dining experience seamless; sometimes it gets weird with two chefs and two different ideas. So I went to El Celler de Can Roca where I worked with Jordi, I went to Alkimia [in Barcelona] and worked at the pastry department there, and then Martin Berasategui. I worked the line at these places, too. But again, I found that the tapas bars, the pintxo bars, going and getting a great little plate of fried potatoes with fried chorizo on top, was what I loved most. The culture was very interesting to me. I actually also worked at a small tapas bar on the island of Mallorca that my friend Raul owned called Mar i Vent. Working with him at the tapas bar made it clear that what I wanted to do was the cool little bites and fun creations.

Which of these experiences had the greatest impact on you?
It was El Celler de Can Roca for many reasons. First, because I learned how to do pastry. Jordi was so meticulous, gracious, and fun to work with. He made it all so hands-on. On the flip side to that with Joan, I got to learn the history of Catalan cuisine with him. Even though he's doing very progressive stuff, each dish has a very clear historical anchor. For me, it was fun to try these dishes at the restaurant and then find them at a classic tapas bar or restaurant. Another side to that was that Joan's mother used to cook lunch for us every day, things like fideos with clams or canelones. Eating those traditional flavors gave us such a great sense of what Joan was doing. There were so many different elements of learning at that restaurant.

So even though you have all these Michelin experiences under your belt, Tavernita will definitely not be a fine dining restaurant?
It's not at all. I mean, Perennial, where I cooked after Butter, was kind of casual, but I think Tavernita will be even more casual than that. I really started to veer away from fine dining after Butter. I wanted to do simple food and things that I enjoy eating at the places I like to go and eat at.

Do you enjoy fine dining?
Eating it or cooking it?

I would say I enjoy it. There's definitely a purpose for it. I wouldn't eat it every weekend. What some of those chefs are doing is awesome and really cool and I commend them for it, but it's not something that I want to do. I'd rather have someone come to the restaurant two or three times a week and have a fun, casual experience as opposed to making it a rare special occasion.

Do you think it's dead?
I don't think it's dead. If it is dead, it'll have a rebirth, just like anything else. It's cyclical. Me personally? I just think I'm done with it.

You've teamed up with Mercadito and are working on what sounds like a high-volume, relatively late-night spot. Would it be wrong to perceive it as a clubby restaurant?
There's no way it's clubby. We're a restaurant first. Alfredo [one of the partners] wants to make sure that there's a vibe to it, but not a clubby one. There's going to be a late night lounge that will happen in the back serving bites and drinks, but we're definitely a restaurant first. It is a big spot, but we've sectioned it off into three different components: we have the San Sebastián pintxo bar in the front that will almost be a stand-and-eat concept with ciders and beers on tap, then a slightly more formal dining room with a crudo bar, and then a lounge in the back.

I mean, I have partners and this is a business, and of course I want it to be a success. We hope it does well and makes money. But the food comes first.

There are lots of resonances between what you've talked about today and what Seamus Mullen of NYC's Tertulia explained to me when he was opening his restaurant. One of the things that came up in that conversation was how he navigated the question of authenticity and being judged by folks born in Spain. How do you view that?
I haven't really had to deal with it yet. I didn't grow up in Spain, my family's not from Spain, we didn't vacation twice a year in Spain. I lived there, and much like him probably, fell in love with the country and wanted to share his interpretations and life experiences. That's what I'm doing now. Anything that I do is always going to be my interpretation and not versions of a cuisine that are embedded in my family's history.

Many chefs in America that are doing any kind of ethnic food — this is kind of the American chef's way of doing things: finding a cuisine that they feel really passionate about and really exploring and studying it and working to recreate their version of what that cuisine is.

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