We’re drinking the booty collins. What are you drinking?
Chef Ryan Poli: It’s the turista, my favorite. It’s our version of a margarita or a paloma. It’s grapefruit juice, tequila, spiced black pepper syrup and barbecue bitters.
How did you two initially meet?
Alfredo Sandoval: One of my partners Paul had taken me to Butter, a restaurant where Ryan was the chef, for a late-night dinner when it opened. I think we made Ryan stay late and cook for us.
Ryan: Yeah, I had already cleaned up! I had to turn the stoves back on.
Alfredo: So it wasn’t necessarily the best start but it was probably the best dinner I have ever had and I remember saying that. The chef that was supposed to be at Tavernita decided to go do a restaurant in Miami about a year before Tavernita opened so I had to find a new chef and partner. It was a Friday or Saturday night, I was standing in Mercadito and Paul came to me and said, “Remember Ryan Poli, the chef who cooked for us that night? He’s in the lounge celebrating someone’s birthday. I told him we were possibly looking for a chef and asked if he was interested and he said maybe. Do you want to talk to him?” Paul gave me his number, I called him the next day and we had lunch at the Purple Pig. We ended up making the deal at the Purple Pig after we spoke for maybe a total of two hours.
Sounds like it was meant to be.
Ryan: I was ready [to leave Perennial]. I felt that I had reached the ceiling there so I was already looking for different opportunities. I interviewed with a couple of other people but nothing really felt like a good fit. When I met Alfredo it was like we both spoke the same language. The guy showed up in a hoodie with Nikes on for the interview and I immediately thought, “I can relate to this guy.”
Alfredo: It takes a lot for me to be impressed when I go out to dinner. I’m a foodie for sure but it takes a lot for me to be impressed with food. The fact that I walked out of Butter that night and said it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life was the biggest factor for me. I met him and we liked each other but beyond that I knew nothing about Ryan other than the fact that he cooked for me that one night, we had never talked. Can you get to know someone in the period of two hours? I don’t know but I make my decisions on gut feeling. There was chemistry right away and like he said, we spoke the same language.
What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about Ryan?
Ryan: I’m afraid of the answer.
Alfredo: He is 100 percent different when he’s out socially than the person he is when he’s at work. It’s day and night. I’m not implying he has a personality disorder by any means but he’s a completely different guy when he’s chef Ryan. Chef Ryan is very serious, very intense and very passionate. If you were to see him out socially you would think that there was no way this guy can make good food.
And Ryan, what do people not know about Alfredo?
Ryan: He’s extremely knowledgeable. I think he’s shy to a point and that comes off to people who don’t know him as he’s quiet or a little bit weird but once you really get to know Alfredo he’s extremely smart. He thinks about everybody, wants to make sure everybody happy and cares about everything that’s going on in the family of restaurants. He’s taught me so much about how restaurants work, the money side of restaurants and how to deal with and talk to many different varieties of people. He’s really opened my eyes to look at things from the guest’s point of view when you’re creating a dish and I think it’s made me a better chef in the long run.
Alfredo: For someone like me who is a curator and operator, relationships with chefs are always difficult. Curators and operators typically think differently than the way chefs think so it’s always difficult, especially when you form a partnership where one is a chef and the other is not. It’s a difficult relationship that you have to nurture and it requires both partners to really develop a relationship that can allow you to grow and excel and keep moving. In this case that was Tavernita first and now Little Market.
Alfredo, you have restaurants in New York and Miami. What is the biggest difference in the experience of opening a restaurant in Chicago compared to other cities?
Alfredo: Chicago is a big city, it’s the third biggest city in the country but downtown Chicago is not that big. In our industry it’s a small circle of people. There’s enough people for these restaurants to serve thousands of people every week but it’s still small and it seems like we all know one another. I can walk into any restaurant within 10 blocks of my restaurants and I know the owner, I know the chef and they know me. In New York I could walk into the restaurant across the street and no one would know me. That’s the one thing about Chicago that I love, we all support each other and we all help each other. In New York it’s survival of the fittest, it’s brutal. There’s competition here but it’s different. Even though we’re all competing with each other, we still help each other.
How did you each get started in the restaurant industry?
Alfredo: I grew up in restaurants. My father owned probably the best restaurant that ever existed in in Mexico, [Madeiras and Villa Fiore], for 30 years. I have a brother who owns 30 restaurants all over the world within a company I started with him in 1997 in New York City. I ran Sushi Samba for six and a half years before I opened my first Mercadito in New York.
Ryan: I started when I was in high school. I was kind of a punk kid and I knew I wasn’t going to go to college so I just got a job at the restaurant down the street from my house. It was a dinner theater, banquet style sort of place where people would sit down to see a play. I still remember the day I made mayonnaise for the first time. I didn’t know that you could make it! I thought you just bought it but it’s eggs, oil, lemon and salt. Once I started cooking I knew this was it and there was no turning back. I couldn’t ever see myself not cooking or overseeing restaurants or doing something in a kitchen for the rest of my life. It’s all I know. I’ve never thought for one minute that I didn’t want to be a chef anymore.
Have you ever thought of offering your food in a quick-service type of environment?
Alfredo: As a matter of fact, I’m not going to say the person or business but I’m in conversation with someone who wants to create the Chipotle [version] of Mercadito. It’s taking the tacos, the flavors and the textures of Mercadito to a fast-food setting where you can come in and spend $10, $12, $13 and afford a great Mercadito experience. That’s probably something that we’ll see in the next couple of years.
Favorite things to do outside of the restaurant?
Alfredo: I eat out all the time. I take people out for dinner a lot.
Ryan: We went to Lao Sze Chuan in Chinatown last weekend which was really good.
Are you guys in relationships?
Alfredo: I have a girlfriend.
Ryan: I am single.
How did you meet your girlfriend?
Alfredo: She works for me. Unfortunately it’s hard to date girls that aren’t in the industry. No matter what we spend 80 percent of our time in the restaurants. When we’re not working it’s 11 o’clock at night so it’s hard to go out with a girl that has to be up at 8 o’clock in the morning for work. I have to say I’ve only dated girls who work in the industry.
Ryan: Same for me. It’s just hard to meet people because of the hours that you’re out at the bar or available to hang out. They have to understand what we do. It’s a difficult life that we live, it’s not easy. What’s funny is when I go up to tables to say hello, I don’t really see faces. I don’t think, “Oh wow, she’s really attractive.” I’m just looking at if they’re happy or how come they’re not eating this or do they need more drinks, I’m in work mode.
Alfredo: Everyone thinks it’s easy to date when you work in a restaurant because you’re always meeting people and because of all the girls that come through but it’s actually the opposite of what people think. I would never dare to ask a customer for their number. You can’t go up to a table and be like, “Hey, can I get your number?” I just would never do that.
How would you describe a perfect date?
Ryan: Okay, I want to put this to rest. Everybody thinks dating a chef includes extravagant meals that he’s gonna cook but in my fridge—this is how pathetic my life is—I literally have condiments and a bottle of champagne. My fridge is completely empty.
Not even once and awhile?
Ryan: No! It’s the last thing I want to do. We would go out to eat. I live and die off of GrubHub and DiningIn. Does an accountant want to go home and do taxes? No. On my days off my favorite thing to do is go and see my friends at their restaurants and support them. I to go to Lula Cafe or Yoshi for brunch to hang out with Matt [Troost]. I like to eat at the places of the chefs and restaurateurs that support us so on my days off I like to go see them and build a camaraderie.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Ryan: Do I go pop culture and have a drink with Willis Drummond? I think on a pop culture level I’d want to drink with John Lennon, Jerry Garcia or Andy Warhol. On another level maybe Julius Caesar or Gandhi or even Jesus Christ. I’m kinda really into history and how things came about. From a chef’s perspective I would choose someone like Fernand Point or [Auguste] Escoffier, the people who really created food back in the turn of the century. Fernand Point would really be a great guy to sit down with and pick his brain about his trials and tribulations because I’m sure things were a lot different back then.
Alfredo: In the restaurant world I would say El Bulli [Ferran Adria].
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