2016 San Francisco Rising Star Chef Ryan Pollnow of Aatxe

2016 San Francisco Rising Star Chef Ryan Pollnow of Aatxe
May 2016

Northern California native Ryan Pollnow worked as a dishwasher and banquet cook while studying criminal justice with plans to become a highway patrolman. But he fell in love with the lifestyle and natural camaraderie of cooks. Influenced by his comrades on the line and memories of cooking Thanksgiving gravy with his grandmother, Pollnow graduated from Santa Rosa Junior College’s School of Culinary Arts in 2005, and set off for the Basque region of Spain to stage at Mugaritz. Returning to the States, Pollnow moved to San Francisco for a job as sous chef under Randy Lewis at Mecca. His next move took him to Sonoma and Jackson Family Wines, where he had firsthand access to a four-acre, organic farm.

After nearly four years, Pollnow moved back to the Bay Area, taking up the sous chef position at Il Cane Rosso under Lauren Kiino. From there, he joined the Rising Stars alum Thomas McNaughton’s Ne Timeas Restaurant Group as chef de cuisine of flour + water in the Mission District; in 2013, he took on the same role at Central Kitchen. During this time, Pollnow earned a spot on Zagat’s San Francisco “30 Under 30” list. In December 2013, Pollnow opened Aatxe as executive chef and partner in Ne Timeas. In 2015, Aatxe was named one of Bon Appetit’s “Top 50 Best New Restaurants” and in 2016 Pollnow was a semifinalist for James Beard’s “Rising Star of the Year” and named a “Rising Star Chef” by The San Francisco Chronicle.

Interview with San Francisco Rising Star Ryan Pollnow of Aatxe

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start? 
Ryan Pollnow:
My first job was working as a dishwasher and banquet cook at the Marin Country Club. At first it was just for a pay check—I was putting myself through college taking classes on criminal justice to be a highway patrolman. But I started making good money and hanging out with chefs, playing poker, checking out the kitchen. I was hesitant because I didn't come from a food family but they finally talked me into it and I fell in love. That was in 2003. I started the culinary program at Santa Rosa Junior College and made the switch to the back of the house. In doing so, I took a $12 dollar an hour pay cut, but had no regrets. I learned and loved the sense of urgency and intensity; banquet cooking is all about size, quality despite quantity. 

SK: Have you had a mentor in your career so far? 
Thomas McNaughton. He balances the traditional pressures of the kitchen with the quality of life for staff. He was the first chef under whom I worked that advocated a positive work environment—not yelling produces results. We spend the majority of our lives together, let's not be negative and miserable. A work environment that is positive and educational is the best.

Randy Lewis was the first serious restaurant chef I worked for, he had a very direct approach to food. He opened my eyes to the fine dining that wasn't a part of my upbringing. When I was in college, I took a field trip to Popina and that opened my eyes to the structure of the kitchen. I stayed after the trip and asked the Chef de Cuisine what I would need to do to work there. I told him I'd wash dishes, prep, whatever, I just wanted to work there. I went back the next Wednesday and then, periodically, working for free until they eventually gave me a paid position. I left the club to work at Popina full time.

When Randy got married and went on his honeymoon to Spain, he looked into stage opportunities for me there. I borrowed $5,000 from my grandmother and did a four month stage in Europe. There were 11 of us living in a four room flat—I'd never been to regular college, so this was my dorm experience. Those months opened my eyes to fine dining from a European Michelin point of view and also to other cultures. I met some of my best friends during that time. We would cook together, and I learned so much about different personalities and approaches to food.  

SK: What is your five year plan? 
The goal is for Aatxe to be the first step toward multiple outlets that highlight Spanish gastronomy in the Bay Area. I've already begun plans for a spinoff restaurant. It's a different concept, but still very Spain and Basque-influenced. Aatxe is casual but the next concept will be even more casual. If it's successful and replicable, there's potential for multi-city expansion, with a possible retail component as well, with the conservas.