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For Matt Poley and Tara Maxey of Heirloom LA, Feeding Others is Part Passion, Part Politics

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<a href="http://elizabethdanielsphotography.com">Elizabeth Daniels 12/12</a>
Elizabeth Daniels 12/12

"This is crazy, you have to taste this," Matt Poley, co-owner of Heirloom LA, is giving me a tour of the company's garden, and has just picked a tiny white strawberry off of a bright green bush the size of a dessert plate, "it tastes just like a Jolly Rancher." The sweetness of the fruit is indeed candy-like, but there's no bitter aftertaste, no artificial colors or flavors. The same can be said of everything Heirloom LA, best described as a growing catering community, produces. From the signature Lasagna Cupcakes — which co-owner Tara Maxey says they use as a sort of currency for fans, farmers and photographers — to the flavor-forward family meal each afternoon, this is a business built upon words like sustainable, organic and free-range. And now, that business is growing outside of itself, organically.

Where are you guys from? T: I'm originally from a town outside of LA called Whittier. I was a political science major at UCLA and worked in wardrobe and fashion before this. Nothing in my former life related to food ... except I always cooked for friends, always had elaborate dinner parties. Except I never cooked for Matt, he was always already cooking! At some point I took a culinary class and it just happened to be taught by Suzanne Griswold. She got me this part-time job at All' Angelo, which was at the time a really great Italian restaurant. I was very specific about wanting only a part-time job. I never thought this could be my job, that I could actually make money doing this. It was always a hobby. M: And now she does her hobby seven days a week. I'm from Detroit. I went to culinary school in Arizona with every intention of moving back to the midwest to cook. Then I took a trip out to LA and... T: Matt was in Arizona, and his grandmother, who knew he loved food, gave him her credit card and said, 'go eat at the best restaurant you can find,' and he looked up the best Italian restaurants in LA. That's how he found Angelini Osteria. Of course he loved it, and when he went back to Arizona, he kept calling the chef, Gino. He just kept calling and calling and Gino wouldn't pick up. Then, Gino accidentally picked up the phone and Matt asked for a job. He kind of laughed at Matt, didn't take him seriously, and said, ok, you want a job? Show up tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. Gino had no idea Matt was in Arizona at the time.

How did you get back to LA in time for the job? M: I drove all night. It's a five hour drive. I showed up at 7 a.m. on the dot, in a shirt and tie, and with my knives.T: Gino was amazing, he actually took him under his wing. M: I worked at Angelini and also at La Terza. T: It was a crazy time. He was also doing catering at Joan's on Third. M: I was working mornings at Angelini and nights at La Terza and whenever I had a day off, I was catering and picked up shifts at other places.

When did you sleep? T: Well, so, Matt was sleeping in his car then. He moved to LA, but started working right away, and didn't have money for an apartment. M: I was working at La Terza and it's inside a hotel (The Orlando Hotel) ... T: He basically made friends with the security guards at the hotel by cooking them really good food. And in exchange, they would let him shower and shave there. But he was sleeping in his car. At some point, Gino found out about this and got him a small apartment. Gino sent him to Italy.

Where? M: I worked at a restaurant called Vissani in Italy, a self-sustained restaurant that served only items that they grew, chickens, eggs that they raised, and foragers would bring in any other outside ingredients. It was a farmhouse set house on a lake in central Italy. T: A five-star farmhouse M: A five-star farmhouse. It was the most ideal cooking situation. There were a lot of cooks, and nobody got paid, so you could really care for each ingredient, each plate, item by item. But I missed working on the line for Gino. I was there for about six months.

How did you guys meet? T: It was while I was working at All' Angelo... M: I had picked up some shifts and was catering at the same time. T: I was kind of struck by him, by how much he loved catering. He loves it, I mean, anyone who knows Matt knows how good he is at it.

Why did you start Heirloom? T: Matt was doing catering, but everyone was asking for him, for his number, for him, personally. He loves cooking for people. I still can't believe I make a living out of this.

When was this? M: 2009, it's been three years T: May of 2009.

Why catering and not a restaurant? M: Inevitably, once you work in a restaurant, you're in the same kitchen day after day after day and it gets redundant, even if you change the menu. But because we're cooking in people's homes and parks and on the truck, on our taco cart, every day is working in a different space, a different project and each project is customized to that particular event and that particular style. While working in an Italian restaurant you're beholden to cook Italian food, but with catering, we're able to try new things, and that keeps us on our toes.

What do you see as your individual roles in the business? M: I work my hardest to operate the business today. Tara works for the future. Where we are going, where we are going to go. Tara's the GPS. T: [Smiling] Even though I don't understand GPS at all.

Why Eagle Rock? T: We've always found a kitchen space, and started working out of it, and then grown out of it really fast. M: We grew out of this one actually ... But before we found it, we were in Culver City, and also sharing a kitchen with Mark Peel, and we had to work the night shift. T: It was horrible, a horrible time. Because just because you work the night shift doesn't mean you can then sleep during the day. During the day you have to answer phones and work caterings and do all of the other business stuff that has to be done.M: We saw this ad for this space, and the landlady's plan was to rent it out to five different companies. We basically said, 'name your price for us to have exclusive use of it.' T: Well, not exactly, but yeah, pretty much. And now we've taken over each building as they've become available, like dominos. M: And Eagle Rock is so great, it's pretty central for us. We do a lot of business in Pasadena and downtown and Malibu. T: Plus, the neighborhood is great! We love our neighbors, and they love us. They come in all the time just to say 'Thanks for being here.' We're on a street with a lot of [makes air quotes] massage parlors, so I guess it helps that we're more of a legitimate business.

We're sitting in a building called The Salon. What is it? M: Well... T: It's not a restaurant! See, the problem is, Matt told somebody that we were opening a restaurant and we had to tell them not to write that. It's not a restaurant, we're not opening a restaurant.

So then what is it? T: It's a pop-up. We've been hosting events here. We've partnered with Handsome Coffee Roasters, and Habit Wines and we're just looking to do more regular events here. People like to reserve the space for private events pretty often. It's also serves as a tasting room. Matt cooks in the middle of that table [points to semi-circular wooden table] and serves from there.

Why is it called 'The Salon'? T: It used to be a hair salon. But also, the meaning of the word salon, we are playing with that too. We want to have people like Phil McGrath (of McGrath Family Farms) come and talk about all of the battles he has to fight as an organic farmer. Things the public doesn't know, otherwise no one would have voted against Prop 37. It's hard for a farmer and businessman like that, he's can't always just get up on the stand on his own because he doesn't want to alienate his customers. Fortunately, we can host talks like this -- I wish we had 300 seats instead of 33. We attract the type of person who wants to be involved in a kind of food movement, so they're open to these ideas. They know that our lasagna cupcakes are $9 because we're using organic eggs and making the pasta by hand and breaking down our own whole animals, which means they're less processed. They don't want genetically modified corn, they want to support small farmers. But it's expensive and it's a conscious decision because it's not always convenient.

Will you be doing pop-ups more often? Open to the public? T: Yes. We want to say once a month, but often what will happen is we'll get busy catering and then we don't have time one month and ... But people should follow us on Twitter (@HeirloomLA) to find out about the next one.

Will people be able to RSVP? T: We're going to have a pre-paid registration system. It's only 33 seats, so we will fill up quickly. We'll have more information on Facebook and Twitter.

Any idea what the partnership will be for the next one? T: Sushi Yuzu. The chef is amazing.

Where is Sushi Yuzu? T: In Toluca Lake. Oh, I might get in trouble for saying this. It's kind of a secret. He loves Lasagna Cupcakes, so we sort of convinced him to do it because of the cupcakes.

How will this tasting work? And when will it be? M: We'll be doing a pairing with his sushi. Sometime in January. T: Can you imagine? Matt's food with sushi? It's going to be amazing, I can't wait.
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Heirloom LA

4126 Verdugo Rd., Los Angeles, CA 90065