His high school tailgate parties were legendary. Matthew Poley and his friends would show up for road football games and they’d outnumber the home fans. “There would be like five hundred kids,” says Poley, who has since skyrocketed to become the 26-year-old executive chef of Michael’s on Naples. “We’d pack up a U-haul with tables and chairs and a grill.” Parents of football players were blown away by the show of support and donated hundreds of dollars to buy food. Poley’s efforts attracted plenty of attention from local papers, but he was just getting started.
Poley grew up in Auburn Hills, Michigan, not far from the Pontiac Silverdome. He always loved to cook and would often assist his mom in the kitchen. “Instead of drawing or whatever kids do, I was playing with a deep fryer,” he says. For Christmas, he received a different kitchen tool each year, including that deep fryer, a Belgian waffle maker and a pizza stone. “I’d make pizza all year,” says Poley. “Flatbread pizzas, focaccia pizzas, you name it.”
As soon as Poley turned 13 and was eligible to work, he started washing dishes at Deer Lake Racquet Club, which hosted massive banquets. “I actually started off as a busboy,” said Poley, “but the chef said to me, ‘Why would you want to work in the front of the house?” Poley began washing dishes and peeling potatoes, and by the time he enrolled at Western Michigan University, he had four years of prep experience.
At college, Poley planned to teach, but after two years of college, he preferred his Restaurant and Hospitality classes. His brother was living in Arizona and encouraged Matthew to enroll at Scottsdale Culinary Institute. “Everybody always says culinary school’s a waste of money,” says Poley, “but I got every dollar out of culinary school.” He and 10 classmates received near-personal instruction from two chefs. By the time he finished the 15-month program, the class sizes had ballooned to 50 people per class and students were vying for time at the burners and ovens.
To earn his associate’s degree, Poley attended culinary school six days a week, eight hours a day. During that time, he learned lessons that he carries with him to this day. For one, “You can run a kitchen with a short staff.” After all, “Less amount of good hands is more effective than more hands that don’t do anything.”
“Number two, you have to have a job while you go to culinary school, because culinary school’s a façade.” With that in mind, Poley simultaneously worked at Continental Catering in Scottsdale and at The Buttes resort. His days lasted from 5 a.m. to midnight, but the two jobs allowed Poley to cover his considerable culinary school expenses.
Poley always wanted to work for Charlie Trotter, but a trip to L.A. for a wedding changed his mind. “I typed ‘best Italian restaurant in Los Angeles’ into Yahoo and Angelini Osteria came up,” says Poley. “My brother and I went to dinner there. From the second I walked in, I was completely in love with the place. I told Gino I wanted to stage there.” Angelini didn’t have any room in the kitchen, but he allowed Poley to work weekends. “I would drive here on Fridays for the last three months of my school, get here, work Friday night and Saturday night and drive back to school on Sunday until eventually, Gino said fine, you can come here to work.”
Poley finished culinary school in 2003 and immediately started working full-time for Angelini, who quickly became his primary culinary mentor. “Until this day I still have a huge picture of him up in my restaurant in Long Beach,” says Poley. “He’s all that is the culinary arts…He’s a guy who works 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, never complains about it and wants to do nothing more than cook really, really good food consistently…Take good ingredients, cook it perfectly, you cannot go wrong.”
Poley also views his father as an inspiration, saying, “He owned a Honda dealership in Detroit, and you know nobody wants to buy Hondas in Detroit. He built it to be the largest, best selling Honda dealership in Detroit, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio…They don’t have to worry about anything, but still, my dad and Gino will strap up every morning at five o’clock and go to work and grind it out.”
After Angelini Osteria, Poley shifted to Angelini’s other restaurant – La Terza – sharing a kitchen with Jason Travi and Ori Menashe. Angelini sent Poley to work at a Michelin two-star restaurant in Umbria, and upon his return, promoted Poley to sous chef. Travi left to open Fraiche and Poley worked with After three years of working for Gino Angelini, Poley and Ori Menashe decided to challenge themselves by opening All’ Angelo on Melrose. Out of the gate, the Italian restaurant scored 2.5 stars in the LA Times and earned a Top 3 slot in Los Angeles magazine. All’ Angelo was also where Poley met Tara Maxey, a talented pastry chef who became his girlfriend and formed the other half of Heirloom LA catering.
Critics respected their food, but Poley believes, “It was a little too high of a price point for the area.” When the crowds started to thin, “Ori and I didn’t want to cook for 15 people a night…We need to go back to cooking for 100, 150 people a night.” Menashe re-upped with Gino Angelini at the Osteria and Poley left in August 2007 to be Claudio Blotta’s opening chef at Barbrix.
Unfortunately, the Silver Lake wine bar/small plates concept didn’t progress quickly enough, so Poley spent six months working at Ford’s Filling Station. He considers chef-owner Ben Ford “a great guy,” but decided it wasn’t the right fit.
Today, Poley employs his relentless work ethic as executive chef of Michael’s on Naples. In his spare time, Poley and Maxey cater through Heirloom LA. In both kitchens, it’s vital for Poley to cook seasonally. “In California, you can get anything all year round,” he says, “but if you taste a strawberry in the summer and a strawberry in the winter, it’s two totally different flavors.” Poley is so committed to freshness that he makes his own pasta, mozzarella, burrata and mozzarella di bufala.
Poley and Maxey would like to open a small grocery store called Heirloom, preferably in Silver Lake. At night, they’d pack picnic tables for prix fixe meals. “$30 for three courses,” says Poley. “Two services. Everybody sits at the table from 6 o’clock until 10 o’clock. Bring your own wine, no corkage.” By day, they’d sell grab-and-go meals and Maxey would make gift baskets, cookies and ice cream. Ideally, they’d showcase local purveyors, including weekly selections from Silverlake Wine and the Cheese Store, plus Cake Monkey baked goods. The couple would also sell $6 sandwiches. “Come in and grab it and go,” says Poley. “Adios.”
Update: Matthew Poley departed Michael’s on Naples in April 2009 and soon after launched a fresh pasta line, which falls under the Heirloom LA banner.