Born and raised in Auburn Hills, Michigan, Matthew Poley watched hours of cooking shows while his athletic brother delved into sports and scholastics. His grandmother took notice and began giving Poley the yearly Christmas gift he most looked forward to — a new cooking device. At age 7 he was making grilled cheese on grandma's gifted electric flat top, and by 20 he had staged at the then three-Michelin star Casa Vissani in Umbria, and returned to work under the tutelage of Gino Angelini of Angelini Osteria. Now, at 27, Matthew Poley is the owner of a rapidly growing catering business, Heirloom-LA.
Turn the page for our interview with Poley, and check back for part two and a recipe from the chef. You'll discover Poley's passion for catering, his process behind creating the lasagna cupcake, how love can be found in a bowl of homemade pasta, and to what he attributes his business' success. One indication that needs no discussion is a visual one; a tattoo resembling the logo for Fox's 24 on the arch between his thumb and index finger of his left hand. If Jack Bauer doesn't need to sleep to complete his assignment, why would Poley?
SI: Heirloom-LA is responsible for the lasagna cupcake, which J. Gold recently praised as a 'great invention.'
SI: Let's jump right in then. How did you come up with it.
MP: I'm always thinking of how I can cater food in portable portions and I liked the challenge of figuring out how to eat lasagna by hand. And there you have it — the lasagna cupcake was born. They are always made with fresh pasta that we roll with a hand crank. No motorized machines are used in order to keep the pasta yellow. That way there's no oxidization. They're at the Pasadena Intelligentsia and can be found at Silverlake Wine ($7 per piece) with our whole line of frozen pasta, and ordered online ($42 for 6). To this day, the Smoked Mac n' Cheese is still my favorite.
SI: Speaking of Intelligentsia Pasadena, Heirloom-LA's collaboration is a big deal. How did that come about?
MP: I love Intelligentsia Coffee and can't imagine a better group to team up with. When Tara and I lived in Silverlake, we'd go over to that Intelligentsia location and bring food to our friends who worked there. Whether it was left-overs from a catering gig or lasagna cupcakes, it was always our way of sharing with the community. When some of them went to open the Pasadena store and decided there would be a food component, I was fortunate that they thought of me. It is an outlet for exactly what we like to do for catering. The menu changes daily, we cook what sounds good, we sell out, and start over the next day. Its like an Iron Chef America competition every morning at 6am at our kitchen.
SI: You mentioned Tara. She's your business partner, correct? How did you two meet?
SI: Sounds like I'm about to hear a love story and I'm a sucker for them. Especially when it involves food…
MP: It does involve food. We were cleaning cuttlefish. If anyone has ever cleaned cuttlefish, you'll know, it's a gross job. But with her there it was actually fun. I asked her out, and time and again she turned me down. Then one night we were out and we were hungry. Instead of a taco stand, I decided to make her pasta. I looked in my fridge. Two eggs. Bacon. I was rolling very slim back then. I had my favorite sauté pan and a couple of mixing bowls. I made a maltagilati (poorly cut pasta) carbonara and let me tell you….it worked. People can fall in love over a bowl of homemade pasta. This is proof.
SI: If cleaning cuttlefish is fun then it is indeed love…So why did you decide to start a catering business instead of a restaurant?
MP: I've worked in restaurants and with catering companies since I was 13. While I was in culinary school I cooked at a catering company called Continental Catering. Think of it as a Wolfgang Puck or Patina Catering. They had all their own rentals and office building. Coming in very green, I saw how the system worked, who was important to what role. It was fascinating.
But, even before Continental Catering, I was throwing parties, be it tailgating, cooking over bonfires, or late night deep fryer nights. I didn't realize that it all counted as catering. While I love being on the line, I really love that with catering there is an interaction and dialogue, sometimes unspoken, between the eaters and myself. In catering, we get to make daily specials and are forced to change our menus every day. We know exactly how many people we need to cook for and exactly how much they want to spend before we even start prepping. No waste, no 86-ing.
SI: And how did Heirloom-LA start?
MP: At the time, I was the executive chef at Michael's in Long Beach. I was driving to Long Beach from LA every day. I just knew I wanted to start catering and asked Tara to do it with me.
So, Heirloom as a company started two years ago, and last June we went full time. At first we were doing very small parties. Tara was working full time at Cake Monkey and I was still at Michael's. I did a fair amount of groundwork so that we could eventually leave our jobs, and I knew that Tara would, and does, play a huge roll. The photos, all the desserts, the social networking, she wears a lot of hats well.
SI: Heirloom-LA's growth has been dizzying. In a recession no less. To what do you attribute your success?
MP: Well, at both Continental Catering and at Angelini Osteria, I noticed that we were all put into full-time positions — meaning that we had specific tasks and were fully responsible for those tasks. I tell everyone, “Do your job like you're applying for my job.” There's only certain industries where you can say that, and this is one of them. So everyone here has that mentality and in the end, everyone is working hard to better themselves and the business. My life becomes a bit easier and it means we find more work. And everyday something new comes in.
We also give our employees profit sharing on all parties, 401k, and full benefits. So when times are tough, and we're able to provide all of these perks, it says “stay with us,” because if we're able to provide these things at this small of a scale, imagine where we could be in five years…
SI: How did you meet Gino Angelini and eventually work for him?
MP:I was at Scottsdale Culinary School and came out to Los Angeles for a trip with my brother. We typed in, “Best Italian Restaurant,” into Yahoo — this was the early 2000's — and up comes Angelini Osteria. From the second we walked in, my whole body relaxed. It was love at first sight. Everything was crazy. They were ripping open Dover sole papillote and filleting branzino at the table. At the other end they were carving a big porchetta. I couldn't believe that I walked into this tiny little room and there was so much happening: so many flavors, senses, aromas and music. Waiters pirouetted through the smallest of spaces. For the last three months of culinary school, I was set on doing my internship at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, but one meal at Angelini Osteria and I knew I had to work there. I pleaded for a job. In the end, I would drive to LA on Friday and Saturday just to wash dishes until he said “yes you can have a job here. “
SI: And then he sent you to work at Casa Vissani in Umbria, Italy?
MP: Yes. And only after 6 months. I would like to think that the reason Gino let me go so quickly is because I did in 6 months what would be an average person's 3 years of work! Or maybe it was something else. At the time I felt very valued by him. I actually missed him so much while I was at Vissani. I was miserable without him. At Vissani, everyone worked silently. At the time it was a three-star Michelin [now it has two stars] and it was so expensive that it couldn't be busy other than on the weekends and holidays. For a while I was like, “I can't deal with this. Why are we not cooking for a hundred people?”
SI: What did you take away from the experience?
MP:The restaurant was located on a farm. From 5 to 6 o'clock in the morning all of us would go out in our pajamas and harvest the fruits and vegetables that were were going to use that day. I also learned a lot of grandma-style techniques. Like how to stop handmade pasta from oxidizing. Vissani taught me the heirloom idea — going back to how people originally had to do things before there were machines.
SI: So is that why you named your catering company, Heirloom-LA?
MP: Maybe. But really, heirloom is a word that to us means “how grandma made it,” taking proven flavors and using traditional methods for cooking and tying in what is market fresh and seasonal. We use as much farmer's market produce from Shaener Farms, McGrath, and Gloria that we can get our hands on. Heirloom is the fit noun for our website, food, drinks, photography, and pretty much everything we do. Comfortable. Grandma makes you feel comfortable, and we try to as well.