Q & A With Heirloom-LA's Matthew Poley: Cooking School, The Word 'Chef,' and a Desert Island Meal

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Fri, Aug 27, 2010 at 2:00 PM
click to enlarge Matthew Poley with Tad Weyland - J. KOSLOW
  • J. Koslow
  • 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.

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