Ryan Poli thinks it’s a great time to be a chef in Chicago—a city that stands by his philosophy that “vegetables are the new pork.” One of the original members of the Pilot Light Project, Poli is part of a group whose mission is to bring culinary arts into Chicago’s schools. Thanks to charities like Common Threads, where Poli sits on the executive chef board, chefs in the classrooms are becoming a familiar sight in Chicago. And now, as part of Pilot Light, Poli can be found in schools, teaching children about how food ties into our everyday lives.
Poli credits his start in the culinary arts to a high school career aptitude test, which pegged him as a chef. The idea of a knife-wielding, white-coated future of crafting perfect canapés was so appealing that Poli didn’t hesitate to turn this recommendation into reality. Self-taught, Poli spent 10 years traveling abroad and working his way through a number of influential kitchens, including Jean Banchet’s Le Francais, Sergi Arola’s La Broche in Madrid, Spain, and Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. In 2004, he opened Chicago’s Butter, which in 2005 was voted one of the country’s best new restaurants by Esquire, and one of the city’s leading restaurants by Travel + Leisure.
In 2007, Poli returned to Spain, with stages at top Spanish restaurants, including Martin Berasategui’s Lasarte and the Roca brothers’ El Celler de Can Roca. He brought his experience back home to a post as the executive chef of Lincoln Park’s casually elegant and widely acclaimed Perennial. Throughout his career, Poli has cultivated a deep respect for sustainability in food and a love for Spanish and Latin cuisines. And even on the brink of opening his new venture, Tavernita, Poli still makes outreach a priority, devoting time to a younger generation through good food and nutritional awareness.