Matt Pool on Chris Bianco, Andreoli Italian Grocer, and Phoenix as a Food Town

Matt Pool Matt's Big Breakfast 825 North First Street 602-254-1074, mattsbigbreakfast.com

Giant Coffee 1437 North First Street 602-396-7215

See also: -- Chili Challenge: TexAZ Grill vs. Matt's Big Breakfast -- Matt's Big Breakfast: New, Bigger Location Now Open

This is part one of my interview with Matt Pool, owner of Matt's Big Breakfast and Giant Coffee. Come back tomorrow when Pool dishes on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and his last meal on Earth -- which will make you want to jump in the car and drive to Texas.

Matt Pool seems a little worried about being interviewed for Chef Salad. "I have never once called myself a chef," he says. "I'm a food guy and I like to think I'm a food enthusiast, but I don't want to be called a chef. I'm just a restaurateur." Just? It's a modest description for the guy who opened what is still Phoenix's most popular breakfast restaurant in 2004, blowing everyone away with the simple goodness of his food and his sophisticated approach to sourcing diner basics such as ham, jelly, and coffee.

But why were we surprised? Pool had spent five years working at Bar Bianco for Chris Bianco, one of the city's first and most ardent local sourcers. The two had met when Pool was still in high school, attending Brophy and working as a busboy at Guy Cosca's French Corner at Central and Camelback. Pool's sister Susan worked there too (as a hostess), and the two of them became friendly with Bianco, who was making his pizza out of AJ's next door. Susan and Bianco became an item (she helped him run Pizzeria Bianco for many years), which kept Pool in the Bianco loop, even after he graduated ASU with a degree in political science and moved to D.C., taking a job as a paralegal at a prestigious law firm. The job didn't pay, so he supplemented his income by working at Houston's, where, he says, he learned a lot about management and nearly everything else. But he decided to come back home and began working for Bianco in any way he could (parking lot attendant was one job) until Bar Bianco opened.

When I ask Pool what made him decide to open a breakfast restaurant, he tells me that his dad had always had a thing for diners, taking Matt and his brother to classic diners in and around Kansas City before the family moved to Phoenix. Matt got the diner bug, too, but never thought much about it until he and his wife, Erenia (who worked for Marriott 10 years ago), realized they were working long hours and missing time with their young son. The two also had noticed that Phoenix was lacking in a mom-and-pop doing breakfast food, so when the tiny building at First and McKinley became available, it felt right. It looked like a diner, and they took the plunge.

The tiny place was an instant success (although Pool remembers it as a slow build), becoming even more crazy-popular when it was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in 2008. In the meantime, Pool had opened The Roosevelt -- a sleek little bar serving elevated pub grub -- in the same neighborhood in 2007. It, too, was a hit, but when Pool realized he was burning the candle at both ends (and missing time with his son), he shut it down in 2012.

Giant Coffee, the artfully designed artisan coffee house Pool opened in 2010, made more sense, being another daytime operation. Pool learned everything he could about coffee, planning to take the same approach he had at Matt's and The Roosevelt: elevating the product by using better ingredients. "We researched that more than anything we ever had in our lives," he says. And it shows. When you're good at it, being "just a restaurateur" seems pretty impressive.

Five words to describe you: Friendly, dedicated, uncompromising, detail-oriented, anxious.

Four words to describe Matt's BB: Honest, warm, satisfying, well-intentioned.

Favorite food smell: Great bread baking.

Something always found in your kitchen: High-quality sea salt.

Something never found in your kitchen: Margarine.

Something always found in your fridge: Tapatio.

Trend you wish would go away: Macaroni and cheese -- I like it just fine, but it's everywhere these days.

Trend you like: Not sure it's a "trend," but an increasing number of restaurants (even chains) paying attention to sourcing great ingredients. That's a good thing.

Name a local restaurant you love and why: My family and I love Andreoli Grocer. The chef and owner, Gianni, is always there and you can taste his dedication to great food and ingredients in every dish. It's so simple and casual -- order at the counter, grab your own drinks, and sit. A few minutes later, you're eating world-class authentic and rustic Italian food sitting in the middle of a little market. We like to go on Mondays, when typically the room is filled with regulars and Gianni's whole family is there, either working or just hanging out together. It really is our kind of place.

Phoenix will be a better restaurant town when . . .It has improved so much; there are great restaurants here. We're just so vast that you need to seek them out a bit more than in some cities. I don't want to suggest ways to make it "better." Maybe it's not on par with San Francisco, Portland, New York, or Los Angeles, but it's a heck of a lot better than many other cities of its size.

You worked for Chris Bianco. What did you take away from that experience?: Without a doubt, it's Chris' uncompromising dedication to sourcing and using the best-quality ingredients without exception. I've known Chris for almost 25 years and haven't once heard him make a menu decision based on its food cost. The way that he elevates a common food, pizza, in this way is a model for us to hopefully elevate another common food, breakfast, in a similar way. Lots of people try to emulate his success with pizza, but there are very few willing to buy the same quality ingredients over time.

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Jared Porter of The Parlor Charleen Badman of FnB Tony Abou-Ganim & Adam Seger Charlotte Voisey of Best American Brands Ambassador Steve Olson of Valley Ho Dough Robson of Gallo Blanco Edward Farrow of The Cafe at MIM Greg LaPrad of Quiessence & Morning Glory Cafe Joshua Johnson of Kai Joshua Johnson of Kai Todd Sicolo of T.Cooks Josh Riesner of Pig & Pickle Lester Gonzalez of Cowboy Ciao M.J. Coe of Federal Pizza Steven "Chops" Smith of Searsucker Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis Michael Rusconi of Rusconi's American Kitchen Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot Lynn Rossetto of The Splendid Table Cullen Campbell of Crudo DJ Monti Carlo Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles

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