JBF Scholarship Recipient Peter McNee

A 1999 JBF scholarship recipient and a graduate of the California Culinary Academy, Peter McNee is now executive chef and partner at the much-heralded Poggio in Sausalito. After hosting a Friends of James Beard Benefit at the restaurant last November, chef McNee took a moment to paint us a picture of his life today—and to reflect on the impact his JBF scholarship has had on his career.

My morning begins with a conversation with a local farmer at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market about when satsumas will lead into pages (two local varietals of mandarins). I have to cut the conversation short, though, to make it back in time to prep. Leaving with local broccoli rabe, almonds, young radicchio, blood oranges, and satsumas in hand, I head back to the restaurant. On the way I swing by Poggio’s organic hillside garden to cut some of our own watercress and cavolo nero and savor a moment to stare at a ferry boat as it leaves town through the thick fog. What should I put on the menu tonight?

Back at the restaurant, one of our baristas makes me a perfect espresso, heady and thick. I give a nod to the rest of the staff and the general manager, Amy Svendberg. I check in with my sous-chef as to the quality of our local fish: “How’s the petrale, the Dungeness, calamari, and sardines?” “Great, Chef,” he responds. Stopping to take a look at the prep list, I see my local pig farmer is dropping off one of his whole hogs today. Better sharpen my knives. For making ribollita, a recipe I hold in high regard, prep cooks have already washed, stemmed, and cut the cavolo nero from the garden. Mamma Lucia taught me how to make this classic while I was living in Italy.

Next is our daily lunch menu meeting, and the service staff is eagerly taking down notes and asking to taste the new artisanal cheeses. I just got in a Testun al Barolo. It’s good, really good. The GM and I have an impromptu meeting regarding chairs, barstools, and finding a balance in our bar crowd. The hog arrives with its offal and blood, too. My sous-chef and I each attack a side of the hog, carefully dissecting the muscle groups with our knives like surgeons. We will reserve the loins for curing lonza and the shoulder for making coppa; the trotters and head will be brined for headcheese. Some meat will end up in sausage and some will be roasted over a wood fire.

I check out of butcher mode, get ready to expedite dinner service and conduct another menu meeting. It’s Saturday night and there are five menu changes, including the spit-roasted local hog. After the meeting, I fine-tune some of the dishes with my cooks and then it is time for service. The kitchen is relaxed, enjoying the final moments before the controlled chaos of Saturday night service. There is a buzz in the restaurant.

Sometimes getting your start can be the hardest part of anything. Receiving a James Beard scholarship to attend culinary school gave me that start. It afforded me the opportunity to get the training and knowledge I needed to make it as a chef in the Bay Area. I also thank JBF for the life experiences at culinary school and the path it put me on following graduation—from the year spent living in Italy to becoming executive chef and partner at Poggio and whatever successes or challenges life has in store for me next.

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