(Originally published May 14, 2015 on Examiner.com).
“I think the first ten years of my career back in Europe were really based more around technique, the technical ability of a chef. Then when I moved to America, I felt there was always more heart in the food. I already had the technique. I had the work ethic. I knew how to generate and extract flavors from food. But it was almost soulless. The cooking was almost soulless back in London in those days. It was done one way. It was only done that way, and that was all you were allowed to do.”
Chef Brendan Collins (of the recently opened Birch Restaurant in Hollywood) didn’t come from a family of chefs, but he did come from a family of good home cooks. When he was a kid, his mom and dad ran pubs. So Brendan grew up around professional kitchens and good food. This proximity, in part, inspired Collins to attend culinary school. Where shortly after completing school, Collins moved to London. There he remained until the end of 2002 (aside from working in Austria at a two star Michelin hotel) before relocating to Southern California. In London, Collins worked for a number of prominent chefs in the Michelin starred kitchens including at The Cafe Royal, The Heights, Pied-a-Terre, The Calls Grill and lastly as a sous chef at Marco Pierre White’s Quo Vadis
In Europe, at that time, kitchens were very hierarchical. According to Collins, you were shown how it’s done, and you’d just do it that way. This methodology was especially true with Marco Pierre White. According to Collins, Marco said, “this is the way it is done, and this is how I want it done.” There was no questioning allowed. Again this was the way it was done down exactly to the details. It was top down. Collins also stated, “At that time in London, everyone was cooking Marco’s cuisine. Or chefs were cooking the cuisine from Le Gavroche or other contemporary French cuisine from the 1990’s. There was no fusion or Asian flavors. There wasn’t any going to the markets and buying food from farmers. There wasn’t any Nordic cuisine that is prevalent through Europe right now. It was this is what we do. This is how you win Michelin stars. You cook this cuisine to win Michelin stars.”
At Quo Vadis the chefs had a guy who drove to the markets in Paris. They told him what they wanted, and he’d bring back what they asked for. Marco’s cuisine was ingredient driven, though those ingredients weren’t from local suppliers like they are now in England. Now it’s all about foraging and the farmer next door, but back in the ninety nineties and the first few years of this century when Collins worked in England, It was just about getting the best product no matter where it came from.
Things have changed quite a bit since Collins last worked professionally in England. Even though the last time Collins was in England was 2011, he still has friends cooking there so Collins know how much the food scene has evolved. The food scene has evolved incredibly. That evolution is not just in regards to cooking, but also in regards to farming and animal husbandry. England has really taken it to another level. English farmers decided they’ll make more money selling directly to restaurants and hotels. So now England has a network of farmers markets that really didn’t exist when Collins worked there.
Despite this lacking when Collins worked in London and at Quo Vadis in particular, Chef Marco Pierre White was an avid hunter. White used to come in and drop bags of ducks and bags of pheasants on the pass. The Quo Vadis kitchen was underground, and had a corridor you’d have to walk through to get to the actual door of the kitchen. Collins and his crew would hang all of these birds from all the plumbing pipes and parts in this corridor.
According to Collins, Marco Pierre White also wasn’t the easiest guy to work for and everyone on the staff had to work really hard. But Marco Pierre White paid his staff really well. That’s how White got people to stay. As a sous chef for White, Collins was earning more than the average head chef in London. Plus because of the way they charge service charge in England, sous chefs would also get a cut of the service charge. So Collins got both his salary and a cut of the service charge. This afforded Collins, as a young man, the opportunity to travel quite a bit throughout Europe and ultimately to the United States.
Collins came to California on a vacation. At that time, he was a dating an American girl who was moving to California to go to graduate school. While here in California visiting her, Collins decided to stage in a few restaurants. He staged at Melisse with Chef Josiah Citrin. He staged at Patina with Chef Walter Manzke, when Patina was on Melrose where Providence is now. He also staged at Joe Miller’s old place. Collins wanted to work in California legally. Chef Citrin got Collins a visa, and Collins consequently spent the next four years of his career as the chef de cuisine at Melisse.
When Birch’s Chef Brendan Collins moved here to America, Josiah Citrin was a young chef, a phenomenal chef who had become an executive chef at a real young age. Collins thus felt Citrin had never been bullied into the technique driven, do as you’re told, style of cuisine Collins had been subjected to in London. So, Collins believes Citrin cooks more from his heart. Collins also believes people can taste this approach in Citrin’s food.
Though Citrin studied in France, Citrin wasn’t under big named chefs for years and years. Citrin opened Jiraffe when he was still in his early twenties. Collins noted Citrin got a lot more of his inspiration from the farmers market. Citrin’s food was soulful. So Collins felt that working for Citrin at Melisse was a good decision for him. Collins worked there as the chef de cuisine for four years bringing his kitchen mentality and discipline to Citrin’s kitchen. Even though Melisse’s cuisine was (and still is) primarily French inspired, there were also a lot of California influences as well as some Japanese and other Asian ones that Collins had never worked with before. So being able to mix and match those flavors in a more contemporary style of food was a much freer and open process than anything Collins experienced before in Europe where Collins had honed his technical skills.
Collins loved working at Melisse. For Collins this was one of the best jobs he ever had, but getting married and starting a family changed many of the dynamics in Collins’s life. Unfortunately, at that time, Citrin couldn’t afford to pay Collins more and Collins couldn’t afford to work for less. So Collins left Melisse for economic reasons when an option to earn more money presented itself.
That opportunity was a partnership with some bar oriented people to do a gastro pub on Sunset Blvd. While that location was under construction, Collins went to work at another location owned by his new partners in Costa Mesa. Here he encountered many of the same issues that the prior chef encountered. So Collins re-evaluated his position and determined it simply wasn’t a good fit and left without any other new prospects. Shortly thereafter Collins was at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market and bumped into Alain Giraud just before Giraud was opening Anisette (which is where Misfits currently is in Santa Monica).
Collins let Giraud know that he was looking for work and Giraud said ask Collins to be his chef de cuisine. So Collins accepted Giraud’s offer. The owners again were bar guys who spent a lot money on amazing restaurant. These bar guys though had attracted Giraud as their chef partner. Giraud, in turn, brought Collins in and the two of them put together a really good team and menu. But there were problems from the beginning. The owners spent too much money on the build out making the project not very financially stable. Collins recognized this really quickly, and that they weren’t going to be able to do what they wanted to do food wise. So Collins put out the word that he wasn’t happy and that’s when he connected with the people at Palihouse. So Collins left to become Palihouse’s executive corporate chef where he remained for approximately the next two years.
As executive corporate chef, he helped some with the menus at Palihouse’s other hotels including The Custom House. But this was 2008 when the economy tanked so Palihouse lost both the Custom House Hotel and the Redbury. The owners managed to retain the Palihouse Holloway. But Collins realized that it wouldn’t be too long before his employers couldn’t afford his salary. At this time too, Collins also wanted to own his own restaurant. So his business partner, the GM at Palihouse, and Collins started to put the feelers out looking for a spot and they ended up getting the building to do Waterloo & City.
This building that became Waterloo & City had previously been a family run diner called Crest House for forty years. The property is still owned by the same family who have owned it since the ninety seventies. As Collins reflects back he and his partner naively took the project on without really knowing what they were doing, but they were able to make it a successful restaurant. Waterloo & City got nominated for best New Restaurant by James beard in 2010. At that time in that area there was just Waterloo and David Rees’ Alibi Room. This was before Rees teamed up with Roy Choi.
Collins had been to the Crest House when it was still open, while his wife was pregnant with his daughter Saffron. At that time, he turned around to his wife and said this place would make a brilliant gastro pub. For the next few years, Collins kept an eye on this location like a hawk. But Collins couldn’t get the right invested group or, basically, his act together. But finally everything came together and Collins found an investment group with the right amount of money as well as a partner willing and able to do the project with him. So between ATM credit cards, bank credit cards and emptying out the kid’s college fund, Collins and his team were able to put Waterloo & City together and have a really successful run.
When Waterloo & City first opened up, Collins remembers looking around to see what what other gastro pubs in town were doing. Collins came from London so he knew gastropubs. In London gastro pubs were like a god send to chefs because they were cheap enough for chefs to eat good food plus were places where they could go hang out with friends. In London, gastro pubs were the English version of a bistro or a brasserie. So Collins always had an affinity toward gastropubs. He also remembers going to the gastropubs in Los Angeles and saying to himself that these places weren’t really gastropubs. These places were more like pubs. There’s a huge difference. With Waterloo & City, Collins wanted to do a real genuine gastro pub with really good quality well executed food. They did a beef burger and fish & chips very well, but Waterloo & City was more than just that. Waterloo was a restaurant inside a pub.
In London, Collins reminisced, “When you work in Michelin starred restaurants you can’t afford to eat in them except maybe on the rare occasion when the chef says we’re doing really well this month why don’t you bring your girlfriend in for dinner. But it’s not like you’re eating out at Michelin star restaurants every week. The thing about London is that it closes down on Sunday, so you always have Sunday off. Plus a lot of gastropubs in London and England got one and two Michelin stars. They’re really going above and beyond. They’re really going for it with their cuisine.”
So Collins felt, with LA’s laid back attitude and the economic times the entire country was going through in 2010, Waterloo & City was a solid concept for LA especially in Culver City where Ben Ford was doing well with Ford’s Filling Station. So it was the right time and place to do this concept.
Waterloo & City was also the first time that Collins had taken menu development seriously. Before as a chef rather than chef/owner, Collins approach to the menu was “this is what I wanted to do and we’re going to do it.” Whereas when Collins got to Waterloo & City and he and his team was doing 320 covers on a Thursday, and 450 to 460 covers on Friday and Saturday nights, it made Collins rethink and re-approach how he did his food. So Chef Collins and his team did a lot more on the mise en place side of things meaning basically many things were prepared in advance which is why the charcuterie program became so prominent. With the charcuterie program they were able to produce, in advance, charcuterie so that when somebody ordered it, in the kitchen they sliced it, plated it with toast and within thirty seconds this appetizer was out the door. So the charcuterie program at Waterloo & City was one of the things that the restaurant became really well known for doing.
Collins also reflected that in England everybody eats the whole animal. That’s just part of the cuisine. America is the only country where meat is cheaper than vegetables. Everywhere else it’s not like that, so people have to learn how to cook and eat every part of the animal. Thus growing up liver and onions was a regular dish as were kidney pies and brawn (head cheese). Eating the whole animal is just part of the culinary culture. Collins lamented though that it’s hard to do this in restaurants because when you buy a three hundred pound pig and butcher it down, you only got 14 chops. Collins postulated, “If you’re going to have a pork chop on the menu, what are you supposed to do with the fifty pound legs you got hanging about?”
At Waterloo & City, Collins and his team would break down animals for charcuterie using primarily smaller animals like rabbits, and half lambs. With bigger animals like three hundred pound pigs, they’d do one full Mangalitsa or Mangalista/Berkshire cross every six months. They’d get their Mangalitsa pig through a forager, Jonny Minton at Foraged Food. Collins and his team liked the Mangalitsa breed of pig. They did a lot of lardo from it, as well as some exceptional salumi from it. They also tried to dry out a leg, but the leg was so big it would have taken like four years to dry out.
Regardless, looking back and summarizing his time at Waterloo, Collins genuflected, “We were very naïve when we went into Waterloo. For the size of the space the rent wasn’t awful, but every year there were three percent increases. So we started out at ‘A’ but five years later we were at fuckin’ ‘Z’. So this year was the right time to close Waterloo and move on to something new” – something smaller, something more reflective of the current economy, and something returning Chef Brendan Collins to his fine dining roots, or, in other words, his new restaurant Birch.
“I don’t take a philosophical look at food. I take more of an analytical look at food. And I like to cook what people want to eat. I think it is very important that food is recognizable. You use the best quality ingredients you can afford to use. You develop flavors. It’s not experimental. It’s more developmental. That’s always served me well in my career as a chef. My restaurants have always been busy which I’m happy for.”
Shortly after the doors closed at Waterloo & City in Culver City, the roll up door opened at Birch. Obviously the timing was no mistake, Chef Brendan Collins was able to retain key personnel from Waterloo & City and move them to his new restaurant in Hollywood. With respect to the overall economy, Birch’s timing for opening its doors was also a lot better than its predecessor. In 2015, with an improved economy, people are more willing to spend than when Collins opened Waterloo & City in 2010.
Consequently when putting together Birch, Collins and his team decided they wanted to do a more upscale restaurant to reflect this increased confidence with great food, a great wine list, a great beer list and great cocktails. So, for example, before “juicing a fucking lime,” Collins and his staff spent weeks on the liquor list just trying to get allocations for the best possible alcohol they could procure by working with distillers. Since the restaurant is small (54 seats inside and 16 more on the patio so 70 seats altogether) not doing 450 covers on a Friday night and because over the years Collins has been fortunate to hire and work with great people, Collins really wants to put the finer details on everything at Birch.
Though Collins was clear with the level, pricing and quality of the ingredients for the cuisine and cocktails he wanted to do while conceiving Birch’s food and drink menus, he had a different approach regarding the restaurant’s concept. Namely, he never likes to be tied to an overall concept because he doesn’t want to box himself in with what he’s able to do. That’s what Collins thinks is the beauty of Los Angeles restaurants. You don’t need to be an Italian restaurant. You don’t need to be a French restaurant. You just need to cook good food. Chef Collins said he learned this from Josiah Citrin at Melisse. Citrin just makes food that looks nice and “tastes fucking delicious.”
Though the food at Birch is based around Mediterranean flavors because California’s climate and produce are similar to the Mediterranean, that doesn’t mean his team won’t use influences from around the globe to really push the boundaries with flavor and presentation. Collins wants to give people an experience that they are not always use to getting. Collins also noted he likes food to taste quite comforting. He doesn’t like being challenged too much with food. Collins stated, “The art of drinking and eating, I think, is supposed to be comforting and that’s why we do it. “
The food at Birch also isn’t directed by any sense of nostalgia like growing up eating kidney pies. Drawing again from his time at Melisse with Chef Citrin, Chef Collins instead goes to the farmers markets and looks for good ingredients for inspiration. Thus he and his team take the best stuff they can get their hands on and cook with it. So, for example, if he finds a cauliflower that’s really tasty first he queries himself are these cauliflowers going to sell? Next he questions, what does he combine with these cauliflowers to make them sell? Then he next muses. how does he make that cauliflower absolutely delicious so the customer wants to not only buy it but enjoyed it so much that the customer comes back the next day to order the same thing? Then Collins with his team gets to work. They start developing ideas. They take the cauliflower cook, Blanche, roast, dehydrate, fry, and grill it. They do whatever it takes cooking the cauliflower a multitude of different ways including with cheese, without cheese, with butter or without butter, etc. They work to develop the best flavor from the cauliflower. Once they develop those flavors, feel that that cauliflower is great, and are happy with it plus convinced it’s going to sell, then they go to the waiters, and tell them what they’ve done so the waiters can then sell this cauliflower dish to the restaurant’s patrons.
Collins also isn’t tied into any specific school or style of cooking. Thus at Birch there is both new and old styles of cooking. New styles of cooking include sous vide as well as a CVap as another way to do low temp cooking. Old school cooking includes confit and braising. Plus they also have a little yaki-tori grill so they’re also cooking some items over binchotan charcoal.
Collins believes that the culinary envelope has opened. For him, this means that if a chef cooks well plus understand flavors and techniques, the envelope is open and boundary-less so a chef isn’t restricted by style or technique or concept. Collins said they’re taking the same approach with the bar, mixing and creating great flavors. The aim is to be really detail oriented in order to make the best drinks that they can make. Aside from not being too California cab heavy, the wine list also is not restricted by rules. The list includes some Grüners, Rieslings, Gewürztraminers, and other really nice wines from both the old and new world. They also have biodynamics. But that isn’t a focus. Again the focus is about getting the best wine they can get their hands on that pairs well with the food.
In addition to dinner, Birch is also open for brunch on weekends, and lunch during the week. Collins realized the importance of having lunch business specifically how important that is to both the top and bottom line revenues. He’s realized a small restaurant definitely needs both lunch and dinner. Plus Collins wants to build a catering business for all the offices in the area. Collins believes if Birch makes a certain amount of money with the office catering, lunch and brunch, then he doesn’t have to turn the restaurant three times for dinner. He’d rather not pushed the kitchen and bar that much. Though thus far that hasn’t been the case, since fortunately dinner business has been very good and up until recently neither he nor his CDC Phillip Hall had taken a day off after working fourteen hour days for sixty days straight. However Collins still doesn’t want to push the kitchen or bar too hard, because he doesn’t want to lose the integrity of the cuisine or cocktails. For example, a number of the cocktails take 3 or 4 minutes to shake. If bartenders behind the bar have 20 or 30 cocktails to make eventually they’re going to have to loosen up or change some. Collins doesn’t want to change.
As for locating Birch in Hollywood, Collins has always been something of a contrarian moving into neighborhoods that aren’t necessarily hot food destinations before they become destinations. This was certainly the case with both Waterloo & City in Culver City and Larry’s in Venice. Collins noted, “When we did Waterloo there was nothing in that neighborhood and we were brave or naïve enough to do something that had never been there before …and we were very successful. We did the same down on the beach with Larry’s where we put a level of cuisine in that wasn’t there before. We used really good quality ingredients. We put in a really good menu, solid menu with fresh ingredients, nothing frozen. The freezer at Larry’s is the size of a small convection oven. Nothing goes into a freezer. It’s all fresh food and that’ the philosophy. We try to be ahead of the curve and do a good job.” In Hollywood, Collins feels this neighborhood too is on the edge of a re-gentrification. There’s a lot of money going into development there. He also got a good lease with really good rent for a space that also was the size he was looking for plus didn’t require a major retrofit or rebuild. He also liked the size of the upstairs kitchen that can’t accommodate too many staff as well as the as the larger downstairs prep kitchen that’s big enough to make everything in house.
As for what’s next, Collins has plenty of pots on the stove literally and figuratively. He’s also exploring additional television opportunities. Though he has no desire to be another Gordon Ramsay, he does realize that building one’s brand through television puts “bums on seats.” Collins stated, “Twenty years ago you didn’t have to; you just cooked good food and ran a good restaurant and everything was great. These days it’s more than that. You got all social media, we got yelp, we got all this kind of stuff and when you’re building a business, you’re also building a brand.”
In addition to Birch, and Collins involvement with Larry’s in Venice, Collin recently also took over the Corner Door in Culver City, and installed one of former CDC’s Ali Khan Haji from Waterloo to run the kitchen there. He also is in charge of the menu at the recently opened Butcher’s Dog Pub & Restaurant on Sawtelle in Little Osaka in West Los Angeles. Here too he’s placing another one of his CDC’s Stuart Gerber. Opening additional restaurants does two main things for Collins. First it helps him retain and promote key personnel he’ taken a lot of time and effort to train. Second, having several restaurants gives him more buying power with suppliers especially for a lot of the more mundane items from Sysco or, for now, US Foods. As Collins noted, “If you have one restaurant, you pay a vendor this much money. If you have two restaurants you’re paying this much money. If you have seven restaurants, you’re getting massive deals. All of the sudden, all of your bottom line, your liquor cost , beer cost, wine cost, your food cost…they all start making sense. You get six or seven restaurants and you go to Sysco, and you say every one of my restaurants needs plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and to-go boxes. I want them at fucking rock bottom prices or I’m going to someone else for it. Before you know it, you’re paying nothing for this stuff. And this is all the stuff that hurts you. If you want to turn a restaurant from a 10% restaurant to one that makes 20% profit, you need five of them. Plain and simple.”
With thin margins, Collins is doing what he needs to do to be successful with both his strategy for Birch and for his other ongoing and future operations. As Collins concluded, “I think we always have to remember that a restaurant is a business. It’s very easy to have it as a play thing or a toy. The reality is that it is a business. It has to make money to survive.”