OC Weekly’s Summer Fest may be over, but my coverage of participating restaurants isn’t quite complete. This week’s focus is True Food Kitchen’s Chris Polley. Chris is a great example of a chef who can take questions I’ve been asking for over five years and still surprise me (in a good way) with their responses.
What was the turning point in your life when you decided that you wanted to be in the restaurant industry?
Really, I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life after my first shift working as a dishwasher. The energy, attitude and intensity within the kitchen really pulled me in, and continued to reel me back in every time I thought about leaving.
Most undervalued ingredient:
Sea salt. Its ability to amplify flavors in dishes both savory and sweet is truly incredible and so simplistic.
For those not familiar with the concept, please elaborate on what True Food Kitchen is about.
A progressive restaurant concept with a menu rooted in the principles of Dr. Andrew Weil’s anti-inflammatory food pyramid. True Food Kitchen emphasizes wholesome, seasonal ingredients with simple preparations to highlight the natural health benefits and flavors of each menu item. The innovative menu caters to a variety of preferences and diets and offers an array of delicious vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options.
What do you recommend for first-timers to True Food Kitchen?
Come in at dusk and sit beside the outdoor fireplace with friends. Order the edamame dumplings and charred cauliflower to share. For entrees, I always recommend the Ancient Grains bowl with your choice of protein or our Sustainable Seabass entree. Finish the evening off with our seasonal Key Lime pie.
What did you serve at Summer Fest?
At Summer Fest we served our popular Albacore Tataki appetizer. It is always a crowd favorite.
You spent a number of years cooking throughout San Diego. What lessons did you learn from Chefs Gordon, Fisher and Irvine that you apply to TFK?
Landing a job working under Ken Irvine was huge for me at the time. I was such a huge fan of the cuisine at his restaurant, Bleu Boheme, in Kensington. It was surreal to be working side-by-side with him in the test kitchens above the Prado restaurant, and then eventually helping him write the menu for Sea 180 Coastal Tavern. He had such a wealth of experience and guidance to lend as a chef turned restaurateur.
Jack Fisher became my executive chef while working at Sea 180. He is somewhat of a legend in the pastry world of San Diego. My goal while working under him was to absorb as much pastry knowledge as I could. This is an area that has always been my weakness, and Jack really helped put pastry, as well as other things, into perspective.
Matt Gordon, executive chef and owner of Urban Solace, ended up being the most influential chef I’ve ever worked for. His knack for perfection, commitment to using the best possible ingredients, and uncompromising standards all contributed to me becoming the chef I am today. Urban Solace is producing some of Southern California’s most talented chefs, and this is a huge testament to Matt’s leadership and dedication to the industry.
One stereotype about your industry, and whether it’s true.
A lot of people believe that being a chef is glamorous. There is a lot of hard work and not-so-glamorous things that happen on a day-to-day basis. Being a chef is a lot of hard work, and the average chef spends most of his day dealing with issues that do not even involve cooking. There are a lot of television shows on these days that do not do a good job at depicting a true “day in the life”.
What was the first dish you learned how to prepare?
The first dish I learned how to prepare was baked clams. I would go on to make thousands of them before and after working my dishwasher shifts.
What seasonal dishes are currently on the menu?
The following dishes are on the spring menu; the summer menu debuts on July 12.
- Torched Avocado – Vegetable side dish featuring cucumber noodle, mushroom, snap pea, radish, sesame and turmeric ponzu (vegan).
- Roasted Artichoke Pizza – Topped with sugar snap pea, smoked onion, roasted garlic, vegan almond ricotta and black truffle (vegan).
- Wild Mushroom Pizza – Featuring asparagus, roasted garlic and taleggio (vegetarian)
- Seasonal Ingredient Salad – Including a blend of asparagus, broccolini, roasted cauliflower, chickpea, pistachio, raisin, manchego and Sicilian vinaigrette (vegan and gluten-free)
- Poke Bowl – Entree with a True Food Kitchen twist, featuring raw and wild-caught albacore tuna, tossed with scallions, hemp seeds and turmeric ponzu. Served over brown rice and quinoa mix, and accompanied by avocado, snow pea, shiitake and oyster mushrooms, watermelon radish, pickled ginger and cucumber. Served with jalapeno ponzu on the side.
- Pan Roasted Chicken – With broccolini, heirloom potato and chermoula (gluten-free).
- Garden Scramble – The brunch favorite gets a seasonal update with asparagus, broccolini, caramelized onion, roasted red pepper and sweet potato (vegetarian and gluten-free)
Let’s discuss your time as a Food Service Specialist with the Coast Guard. What guidelines did you have to follow when it came to preparing meals, and could you give us an idea of what dishes were served during a typical week?
Cooking in the USCG was a lot like cooking for the crew of a small firehouse. I had to work with a small daily budget as well as nutritional guidelines that were set by my command. The one thing that set me apart from other cooks is I would gather input from the crew on what they wanted to eat, and then build my menus around that. I will admit that we did eat a lot of chicken. Each station had individuals from all over the United States, and each of them were accustomed to and wanted food that reminded them of home. This forced me to extend my knowledge in the kitchen and provided a great deal of morale for the crew in return.
Where did you grow up, and where’s home these days?
I grew up on Long Island, New York. I recently relocated from San Diego to Newport Coast with my wife and one-year-old son.
Your favorite childhood memory:
Favorite childhood memory was working every summer on Fire Island, NY, in a seasonal restaurant. We were a tight group of friends working 60+ hours a week and living above the restaurant. I worked with some interesting characters, and eventually learned a lot about life and the industry.
What is your guilty pleasure food?
My guilty pleasure food is freshly baked bread. There is nothing more satisfying to me than a loaf of hot bread. I have, on many occasions, eaten an entire loaf.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I have a degree in Psychology.
Last thing you looked up online:
How to sooth a teething toddler. My peers told me whiskey. I had to confirm.
Hardest life lesson you learned:
We often don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone. That includes our health, our family, our friends and our job. When you’re young, it seems that your parents will always be there, but they won’t. You think you have plenty of time to get back in touch with your old friends or spend time with new ones, but you don’t. Nothing in your life is guaranteed to be there tomorrow, including those you love.
What would you like to try if you weren’t in this business?
If I wasn’t in the restaurant business I would have become a helicopter pilot. I am really intrigued by helicopters, and also enjoy showing people around. Being able to look down on traffic from the sky wouldn’t be so bad either.
True Food Kitchen is located at 451 Newport Center Dr, Newport Beach, (949) 644-2400; www.truefoodkitchen.com.