New Chef, New Season

“When I boarded the ferry in the middle of January, the prow grinding through broken Lake Michigan ice, and fell in love with the island in the dead of winter I knew it was for real,” says Matt Poole, the new chef for Hotel Washington.

A Midwest native, Poole has lived in the Bay Area for the last five years working first at Desco, a regional Italian restaurant in Oakland and then the premier farm-to-table institution Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Working under chef Simone Ferrara at Desco, Poole learned the values of Italian cooking, nuanced yet simple flavors in perfect balance and in time with the seasons. He moved to Chez Panisse in 2016 where he gladly took to the challenge of cooking a daily-changing menu utilizing a never-ending parade of the best meats and vegetables. Chez Panisse, founded by the visionary restaurateur Alice Waters in 1971, has built deep relationships with farmers, ranchers and orchardists to bring the best of the generous California seasons to its guests.  His time on the west coast refined his culinary skills and also showed him how restaurants can build and sustain a community. He describes, “I’ve seen how they have the power to nourish people and surprise them, to build economies around passionate producers and nurture the people whom they employ.”

But Poole didn’t always want to be a chef. After graduating from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI with a Fine Arts degree, he started an art gallery, traveled, collected records and started a record label for his 30th birthday.  At 31, he weaseled his way into the kitchen at Marie Catrib’s, the beloved Grand Rapids restaurant where he had been working in the deli.  Sharing a tiny prep table with Catrib and his first mentor Jill Henemeyer, Poole fell in love with food as the perfect blend of creativity, craft and community. He says, “All the loose ends of my life came together in cooking.”

Getting a late start to cooking, Poole decided he needed to make a big move to catch up. “I remember reading Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain where he basically said if you didn’t start cooking at 20, you missed your chance.” Poole remembers, “But Bourdain also impressed upon me how if you are willing to put up with long hours in hot kitchens, tired and sore, and you can’t imagine being anywhere else you are crazy enough to be a cook.” So he packed up and moved west. The abundance he found there was a revelation. He marveled at tender dates, ten varieties of broccoli at the farmers market, citrus growing in front yards and seafood glistening and smelling of fresh ocean air. He learned to prepare everything California had to offer but began to wonder what farm-to-table cuisine would look like back along the shores of the Great Lakes.  

 At the same time a college friend, Russell Rolffs of Hoot Blossom Farm on Washington Island, texted him out of the blue, “Would you want to move back to the Midwest?” For the next year and a half, Poole and Rolffs stayed in touch, talking about the vegetables and herbs they were excited about, menu ideas, and Island life.

 “Matt told me about a type of basil he was using at Chez Panisse called Piccolo Fino or Fino Verde, a fine leaf basil that is superbly aromatic. I tried growing it last summer and it grew well for us. I was so pleased,” says Rolffs.

 In February 2019, Matt Poole decided he too wanted to take the leap and leave his work in California to join forces with Hotel Washington. Poole recruited two friends to join him in his new adventure. He met Baker and Pastry Chef Amanda Ebenhoeh and Sous Chef Ian Milosek while working at Marie Catrib’s. They are both Michigan natives and looking forward to reconnecting with Poole.

 The new Hotel Washington team will work with Hoot Blossom Farm, Folk Tree Farm and other growers on the Island and start partnering with foragers and other Wisconsin producers. “This is our chance to see what is happening on the Island already. What grows here, what the land wants to make, what the people are hungry for. We get to harness our skills to take all this and make something beautiful and delicious with it.”

The Restaurant will serve a special Mother’s Day Brunch on Sunday, May 12 at 11 am to 2 pm. The following Saturday and Sunday, May 18 and 19, 4:30-8:30, the restaurant invites Islanders for a preview of the menu. The season officially opens Tuesday, May 21 for dinner six nights a week through October from 4:30-8:30. For reservations, call 920-847-3010. Closed Mondays.