When I called Sam Poley to schedule a lunch interview, he told me he'd be happy to go, but I'd have to pick the place. The longtime chef now speaks for all of Durham's restaurants as director of marketing and communications at the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Over the past decade, Poley's considerable culinary talents have won him fans throughout the Triangle as he moved from working under chefs Giorgios Bakatsias and Scott Howell to leading kitchens at Squid's and The Weathervane at A Southern Season to running his own place, Starlu.
But now Poley has traded his post at a stove to a seat behind desk. The chef, who holds a degree in communications, worked at the visitors bureau once before starting his kitchen career at Parizade.
Our lunch date turned into a coffee break on the Friday before Memorial Day. It was hot, though, and Poley said he needed to hydrate to prepare for his wife's sangria later that evening. Ice water it is, then. But even when there's no food around, Poley still brings the fun.
I thought fun must be a crucial ingredient in a guy who warms up the audience in cooking demonstrations by subjecting an onion to his rapid-fire knife skills while never once glancing at his hands. ("Drives my mother nuts!" he said.) This is a guy who names a white-tablecloth restaurant after his wife and his dogs (Stephanie + Arthur + Lu = Starlu), and who served a late-night hot dog special at that same restaurant.
Did the restaurant business stop being fun?
"It never stopped being fun," Poley says. "My son was growing up. He's gonna be 4 in a couple months, and I was missing every Saturday, essentially every weekend." Last summer, Poley decided to make some calls to see if anyone would remember that he had another skill set. They did.
"What people said to me was very interesting," he recalled. "They said, 'Well, you've always been in communications. You never stopped doing that. You just cooked while you were doing that.' That was really encouraging to hear."
So now he's helping promote Durham—all of Durham, hence the reluctance to pick a restaurant. Last month, he led the effort to save Bullock's Bar-B-Cue, the longest-running restaurant in Durham, after a salmonella scare hurt its business. (Health department officials found no trace of salmonella after several days of testing Bullock's kitchen, and the restaurant has never earned a sanitation grade below A.) To turn things around, Poley called a number of chef friends to eat lunch at Bullock's on the Friday before Mother's Day—combined with graduations, often the busiest restaurant weekend of the year. He also called the media. The line wrapped around the building, and the large turnout made owner Tommy Bullock cry. "They're more than just a restaurant," Poley said. "They're a community asset."
Instead of taking credit for the save, he holds forth for several minutes on the intricacies of kitchen sanitation, and how good restaurants can be forced to close. Further pressed, he would only say, "I had a unique set of skills and experience and contacts to assist in that situation ... It was my job. It just happened to be that I was extra-special prepared for that one."
As for eating, he's recently taken his son to check out Mayflower Seafood, and Shrimp Boats. Plus, "I'm really into what [chef-owner] Matt Kelly is doing at Vin Rouge," he said. "I'm down. I get it. I'm a fan of Matt."
And he's still cooking up his own fun. He had to leave to prepare for nine guests that evening, coming over for sangria and "the world's biggest antipasto." And after that, "a 9-pound pork shoulder's gonna be on my grill at midnight, to be ready for a late lunch tomorrow," he said. "I'm feeling good about that."