Q & A With Heirloom-LA's Matthew Poley: Cooking School, The Word 'Chef,' and a Desert Island Meal
Matthew Poley with Tad Weyland
In the first part of our interview, Matthew Poley discusses his trajectory from washing dishes at Angelini Osteria to cooking in Umbria at Casa Vissani to co-owning the rapidly growing catering company, Heirloom-LA. In this second part, Poley tells us what he took away from cooking school, why he hates the use of the word 'chef,' what's up next for the catering company, and what he would cook for a final desert island meal. It's safe to assume that his 'Heirloom' style cooking does not stop at home. Turn the page, and check back later for Poley's recipe for summer agnolotti with pea tendrils.
SI: Where did your love of food begin?
MP: I grew up in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and from a very young age was obsessed with cooking shows on TV -- which is odd because I grew up eating chicken nuggets and french fries from a bag. But my grandma would cook a lot of things from scratch. She would make mashed potatoes from scratch while my mom would make mashed potatoes from a bag. My grandma would make gravy with the drippings while my mom would open a can of gravy. I was always curious, and paid attention to the fact that my Grandma was at least taking that right next step. She propelled my appreciation of cooking.
SI: A career in the food world wasn't always obvious?
MP: For whatever reason, I never thought of it being a career. After high school, I went to college. I was a cook in college and I just couldn't figure out what I wanted to do when I finished school. I called my friend who has an engineering degree from Northwestern and I'm like, "Dude, I don't even know what classes to take next semester. I'm here with a full-ride scholarship from my parents and I can't figure out what i want to do." And my best friend takes a moment and he said, "Why don't you be a chef and go to culinary school." I have worked in restaurants since I was 13 -- and for whatever reason it never dawned on me that, yes, I should do this for a living. It was an aha moment. The light bulb went off.
I started looking at schools and during the process talked to my brother. He was at Arizona State at the time and told me about Scottsdale Culinary Institute [Now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale]. He said, "Move here. There's beautiful weather everyday and we can get an apartment together." Now you have to understand that my brother and I didn't really have a relationship or friendship. He was the kid you dreamed of having; the one in amazing shape, great at sports, straight A's -- the list goes on. I was not that kid. But his offer was too good. I moved to Arizona.
SI: So you ended up at culinary school. Did you love your experience there?
MP: I had an amazing experience at Scottsdale Culinary Institute. When I went there, there were only 10 people in my class. 10 people to 2 instructors, I had my own work space, my own oven, and I had tons of time. I know this sounds funny, but the program taught me to read. I understood for the first time that if I wanted to get somewhere in the industry that I had to read for fun and read textbooks. I never read growing up and in college I tried to read books but I would just start to think about other stuff. With culinary school I knew that retaining information meant getting A's. Never in my whole life thought to myself, "Read this and you will get A's," because I never got A's... ever. In culinary school, straight A's. It was awesome.
SI: Do you think culinary school is a necessity if you're looking to become a chef?
MP: When I finished culinary school there were 40 people in a class. It seems that these programs have become more of a for-profit business. So I loved culinary school because of the attention and the fact that I invested 100% of my time. But is it a necessity for everyone, now? No. Both Tara [co-owner/pastry chef] and Tad, who runs the kitchen, are self-taught. They just loved to cook. Tad worked for free at Grace for two years. No pay. That's how you gain all that knowledge. I worked at Angelini Osteria during Culinary school on Friday and Saturday nights forever to wash dishes until Gino said, "Yes, you can have a job here."
I worked for free in Italy, I was in Italy, but I still did it for free. Tara did the same at Cake Monkey. It's very likely that if you want to get into the industry that you'll have to do a period of time where you are well aware that you are not getting paid. Get another job and then spend 50 hours a week doing this for fun! So the problem is that there are a lot of culinary students in the market right now looking for jobs and they're told they come out of culinary school and that they're a chef, that they will get paid like a chef and that's just not the reality.
Bushel of fresh chickpeas to be transformed into salad
SI: What does it mean to be a chef?
MP: I never will refer to myself as a chef. I like it in a derogatory way, like, "WHAT UP CHEF." That, I like. Gino Angelini is a chef, Jason Travi is a chef. These are people who have earned their keep -- I hero worship this guys. I am so happy to work 20 hours a day, but to be a chef is to work on a totally different level.
Gino Angelini, is a man who's been cooking his whole life and sacrificed everything for his craft. At 23 he was the executive chef of a 4-star, 5-diamond resort in the days before Michelin stars existed. He cooked for Pope John Paul II. I'd say he's between 55 and 60 years old and he's still in the kitchen 6 days a week 20 hours a day. I would try to beat him to the kitchen and sometimes would succeed, but he was always there. You rarely got there before him and you never left after him. His restaurant is his home, it's what he knows -- where else is he going to go? That's what makes a chef. And because I want a balance, whatever that balance is, I don't feel comfortable thinking of myself as a chef.
SI: I guess it's safe to say you look up to Gino Angelini...
MP: Yes, very much so. In my opinion, Gino Angelini is the best chef in Los Angeles. Hands down. The things he touches just turns to gold. He's very deserving of the credit that he gets although I don't think he gets enough.
SI: What about inspiration? Are you reading anything right now that inspiring you?
MP: I'm currently reading David Chang's cookbook, Momofuko. Momofuko is this weird phenomenon to me. Tara had been telling me that I need to read it and that I would absolutely love it. We had a day off a few months back and so we drove to Palm Springs. I grabbed the book thinking that I would need something to read by the pool as Tara was engulfed in the 40 reading materials she was bringing. Momofuku has yet to leave my side. He talks about how he worked at all of these amazing places with hardcore cooks and serious teams in the kitchen. As have I. He talks about recruiting them to come work with him and they just aren't having it. As do I. He cooks what he wants even though it doesn't really fall into parameters. He has his theme but its constantly transforming with what he feels like cooking. I feel quiet connected to him.
SI: What's next for you guys?
MP: Heirloom-LA just started catering to the recently opened Paper or Plastik Cafe so that's new! We already have 36 weddings booked for next year which is 4 more than we have for the rest of this year. We are indeed expanding -- we're building a 6,000 square foot space in North Hollywood and at that point things are really going to be unleashed.
We'll probably move into the space at the beginning of the year and then I'd love to turn our current prepping place, which we have leased for five years, into a little pasta house. A place with simple wood tables and paper place mats where we'll have dinner parties. Monday night, $20 bucks, BYOB, perhaps lasagna with filling made with from a full roasted pig and just pack the house. That's the dream.
SI: Last question. If you were on a desert island, and you had one last meal, what would it be?
MP: If I was on a desert island, I'd want my last meal to be something I collected and caught myself. I'd whittle a spear and make sure that I personally captured the fish for the meal. I'd gently cook the fish over a fire and serve it with edible food foraged from the island. And Tara would be there. I'd want to share it with her.
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