Blue Collar Butter

Michael Nagrant / 01.12.06

Ryan Poli, chef of the West Loop’s new hit restaurant, Butter, is exacting. On a recent afternoon visit to Butter, 130 S. Green, Poli was methodically dividing a loaf of bread into identical, quarter-inch slices for a broth that would later be made into buttered toast foam to accompany caviar. Poli could have chopped up the bread into random pieces, but by cutting the bread uniformly, he exposed the most surface area, increasing the flavor in the foam.

With that sort of eye for detail, combined with a lifelong student’s eye for infusing standard cooking methods with new techniques, Poli has quickly elevated himself into the culinary elite. Butter recently got a nod from Esquire as one of the 20 best new restaurants in America.

But don’t confuse Poli with his Chicago contemporaries, like Alinea chef Grant Achatz and Moto Chef Homaru Cantu, who lately have made headlines with unconventional, surreal menus that stretch the imagination of their diners. Achatz, when he still worked at Trio, famously served a virtual shrimp cocktail, where diners were given an atomizer and told to spray their tongue to taste shrimp, horseradish, and tomato-flavored air, while Moto offers “hanger steak with hanging potato chain links.”

Poli, for his part, cooks with a lighter touch of whimsy than his counterparts, spotlighting dishes like guinea hen with bacon ice cream. He cooks his chicken sous vide, poaching it in a cryovac bag at a very low temperature, saying that produces a more tender cut of meat. But he insists that he doesn’t employ newer cooking techniques simply for the sake of being cutting edge.

“Chicago is more of the consumer of America, the working people of America,” Poli says. “Let’s be creative, but not crazy, let’s give the people kind of what they want, and in our own way we will kind of turn them on to some newer things.”

Poli, raised on the South Side as the son of a cop and a secretary, says he intends to stay grounded and true to his modest upbringing, when he was far from a foodie.

“I didn’t grow up eating foie gras,” Poli says. “We kind of grew up eating whatever my mom made. I grew up eating what was at the mall.”

Similarly, Poli’s first kitchen experience was hardly high cuisine. Poli started cooking professionally as a high school senior back in 1995, filleting mountains of salmon at the Candlelight Dinner Theatre Playhouse in southwest suburban Summit. Poli, jokingly dubbed “The Salmon Man” by co-workers, recalls being thrown into the pressure-filled environment of a kitchen almost immediately.

“The chef said, here is a salmon, you can screw up the first hundred, but after that we expect you to know it,” Poli says.

After his successful immersion in salmon, Poli knew that he wasn’t interested in attending culinary school.

“I’m a very hands-on person,” Poli says. “Show it to me and I can do it, instead of standing around a chicken and watching the teacher do it, and then not seeing a chicken for another four months.”

Instead, Poli took a job at Le Francais in Wheeling, where he apprenticed under Jean Banchet. It was at Le Francais where Poli realized he was beginning a career. At the time, Poli was a big fan of Phish, but opted against the nomadic lifestyle of other Phish followers for a life in the kitchen.

“It was like OK, I’ve chosen a career now,” Poli recalls. “I’d be damned in hell if I would ask this French guy if I could get the weekend off to go travel around with some hippie band.”

It was at Le Francais that Poli learned classic French technique, the foundation of what he does at Butter. Poli also learned the importance of instilling discipline and organization in a kitchen. Of Banchet, he says, “I knew I had to go work for some great chef and get my butt kicked for awhile.”

After that, Poli moved on to work for Thomas Keller at the classic French Laundry restaurant in the heart of California wine country. The French Laundry is notorious for its attention to detail; the restaurant’s fish purveyors are required to pack their fish in ice in the direction that the fish swim in their natural habitat. Keller reasoned that laying the fish on their sides stressed the flesh of the fish and resulted in an inferior product. Poli manages his own kitchen in the same way, paying attention to share the history of an ingredient or the importance of a specialized technique with his staff, and encouraging thought at every step in the cooking process.

“Thomas taught me to look at the little details to make a dish come to life,” Poli says. “That’s something we definitely do here [at Butter]. If we really take the time to layer the potato cake, making sure each slice of potato is very thin, it’ll all melt together.”

Poli also prized the independence and autonomy that was encouraged at the French Laundry, realizing that he would only be a chef if he could develop his own vision for dishes.

“When VIPs would come in, Thomas would encourage us to take our ingredients and come up with original dishes, you know, something within the confines of the restaurant’s style,” Poli says, who now consults with his fellow chefs at Butter on new menu ideas.

The last lesson of the French Laundry, Poli says, was “to take a classic preparation and add a twist.” The French Laundry serves “oysters and pearls,” a dish that resembles a tapioca pudding, except that caviar and oysters are featured in place of tapioca. At Butter, Poli offers linguini “false” Bolognese, eschewing the usual ground beef sauce stock for four kinds of wild mushroom.

After the French Laundry, Poli found his way to La Broche in Madrid, Spain, where he worked with chef Sergi Arola. At La Broche, Poli learned how to make trendy food foams, exotic ice creams, deconstructed plating, and sous vide cooking. Today, these techniques define Poli’s style of new American cooking—finding the freshest locally grown and produced ingredients and transforming them through classic French and modern techniques, producing unexpected textural and flavor combinations on the plate.

At La Broche, Arola prepared dishes that emphasized both the “mar and montana,” or the sea and the mountain, once pairing cuttlefish with meatballs in a veal stock sauce. Poli carries on that tradition at Butter, often pairing a fish like halibut or sea bass with braised short rib ravioli.

When Poli returned from Spain in 2004, he was ready to open his own place, but the workaday demands of paying the rent and bills forced him to postpone that dream.

“I went two months without a job, and I got back from Spain with debt. I was like OK, let’s regress and take a chef de cuisine job and work into owning a restaurant. I couldn’t find any positions. So I took a job at the Hyatt Regency just to work.”

He didn’t have to wait long, though. In early 2005, a friend alerted him that a group of investors were opening a restaurant in the former Green Room space. Poli, who is 28 years old, sent his resume to Jason Chan the owner of Butter. “I showed up, and Jason was like ‘Who are you?,’ and I was like, ‘I’m Ryan.’ He’s like, ‘Ryan? Where’s your dad, kid?’ Then I did a tasting for him and the investors, and we let the food speak for itself.”

Chan says, “I conveyed to him my thoughts on the ‘style’ of food I wanted: simple, elegant, classic American with influences of contemporary techniques. I then realized after the tasting that he captured and shared the same vision, which is why we have such a great synergy.”

The restaurant opened last May, and Chan now says of Poli, “His talent, creativity and experience far exceed his age. He’s a 40-year-old chef in a 28-year-old body.”

In the seven months that Butter has been open, Poli’s willingness to synthesize new ideas and experiences has earned him plenty of kudos from diners and fellow chefs. Eliot Wexler, a Butter diner, says he was able to detect Poli’s various influences on a recent visit.

“A chef that has worked at the French Laundry, La Broche in Madrid, and Le Francais has such a great foundation of learning that I had to try it,” Wexler says. “This is the fantasy path of a modern chef. I can see the influence of his time at the French Laundry crossed with the modern style of Spanish cooking. To be honest, in my opinion, it does not get better than that.”

Moto chef Homaru Cantu, one of the aforementioned unconventional chefs making his own mark on Chicago, was similarly enthusiastic about Poli.

“I had one of my top five meals of 2005 at Butter,” Cantu says. “The whole ambiance, the service, and the way they are extending things is really interesting. I know Ryan is traveling in Spain right now; I can’t wait to see what he comes back with.”

Still, Poli’s employees say he has managed to retain his humility, to the point where they feel comfortable lightheartedly poking fun at him.

“He’s out doing events all the time or the talk show circuit,” Tim Edmonds, Poli’s chef de cuisine says jokingly.

Greg Brandberg, who works the meat station at Butter, says Poli, despite being a well-known chef, is still eager to take on the most menial of tasks.

“It’s nice to see his hungriness, working the line, scrubbing down the stoves with us at the end of the night,” Brandberg says. “There is very little ego.”

And Poli says he’s determined as ever.

“I still want to learn, still want to stage,” Poli says. “Don’t sit back on your laurels. Now we are under the microscope of this is the best new restaurant, as they say, and now people are going to be coming in with expectations. Maybe we have to bump it up a notch. Keep working hard, keep being creative, keep finding new ways to do old stuff.”

This article first appeared in the Chicago Journal in a different form.