By Mara Papatheodorou, your Tastes & Traditions Expert
Born and raised in Nottingham, England, Chef Brendan Collins knew early on that he wanted to be a chef. His first job at the age of 17 was at Michelin two-starred La Gavroche in London. He continued to hone his skills at some of London’s finest gastronomic temples, including The Café Royal, The Heights, and Pied à Terre. He sharpened his expertise at the Oxo Tower and then became a sous chef under Marco Pierre White at Quo Vadis. During his tenure, he was part of the team to garner a Michelin star and was quickly recognized as rising star in London’s culinary scene.
In 2002, Collins crossed the pond to work with revered chef Josiah Citrin at Melisse in Santa Monica as chef de cuisine. During his four years there, Melisse consistently earned a Mobil Four Star rating and became one of California’s first Michelin two-star rated restaurants. He then struck out on his own opening Mesa in Orange County to much acclaim followed by Anisette in Santa Monica with chef Alain Giraud. Later he became executive chef of The Hall at Palihouse in West Hollywood. Most recently, Collins was the executive chef and co-proprietor of the former Waterloo & City. The elevated English gastropub opened in 2010 and became an instant success. He has become known for his refined and modern approach to food, as well his passion for whole animal butchery and seasonal cooking. All of this has led him to Birch, which features fantastic seasonal dishes tempered with a straightforward sensibility and relaxed atmosphere.
As an established Master Chef what inspires you?
All sorts of things. I’m British so initially when I began my professional culinary career I looked to the world’s globe for ingredient inspiration. But as I moved along and then came to California, I became further inspired by the amazing seasonal elements here. Now I am also inspired by nostalgia and really enjoy taking British based dishes and creating a modern flavorful twist to them. I’m very product driven and work closely with my purveyors. Once I know what I can get or have then I get inspired to make something from that. I obviously always strive for excellence. My goal all of the time is to please my customer so they want to keep coming back for more.
It is a balancing act to be the Master Chef and the Restaurateur of an establishment. How do you manage that fine line with such success?
It is a fine line and it takes a lot of commitment and hard work. It's like putting together a giant puzzle. To be successful at both requires consistency and a commitment to that consistency. It starts from that base which then leads to creating a solid and creative culinary team you can train and trust. This is not a business for the faint hearted, but if you like it like I do you remain dedicated and steadfast. That belief and determination has taken me a long way through rough times and great times. You conceive, you plan, and you go for it. The menu and its ingredients, the pricing, the restaurant design, the bar all matter. If all is done well, the camaraderie and the results are very rewarding.
You trained and worked in some of London’s greatest establishments and then came to California to restaurants where you helped them earn further accolades. How have those experiences shaped you into the Chef you are today?
I am who I am today as a professional and as a chef, because of the people I was fortunate enough to work for in their restaurants. They all made impressions on me and passed along knowledge which I absorbed and processed into my own way of working. London was an amazing base, but California expanded my view and my options. Working with someone like Josiah at Melisse made its mark. California is now my home, and I knew I wanted to eventually own my own place. With that goal in mind, I worked long hours until I knew I was ready to open and run a successful business. I loved doing the gastropub Waterloo & City, as that felt really natural coming from a family who owned an English pub. And now I’m really excited that Birch has opened and we can present refined dishes with a modern touch.
Birch is beautiful, a modern sleek tone yet a welcoming atmosphere and an innovative menu. How did you come up with the name?
The name reminds me of the woodlands of Birch trees near my childhood home in Nottingham in England. Birch trees are real, rustic, yet beautiful. I do my best to emulate that in my cooking.
Many restaurants you worked at as you were honing your skills and earning an impressive reputation earned stars and extra accolades while you were there. What did it take to help earn those stars and various accolades?
Precision and innovation. Long, long hours, dedication and a lot of hard work.
Your roasted pork sauced with pomegranates and served with autumn squash-stuffed tortellini are beautiful. What is the story and inspiration behind them?
I love roasts. Being British, a roast feels very second nature to me. In fact instead of Sunday Brunch, I do Sunday Roasts Lunch at the restaurant! I really enjoy preparing meat, particularly pork. It is so versatile, and I can make all sorts of items with it from a roast to charcuterie and pâtés. I like to brine my roasts for added flavor and moisture, so the texture can also be appreciated. I’m nostalgic about, and affectionate for, pomegranates. When I was a kid, my Mum often gave them to us as an afternoon snack, and I remember picking each red seed out with a tooth pick and loving them. They are such an excellent addition to the flavor profile of a dish, especially something neutral like pork. It welcomes the richness of the pomegranate seeds and juice that make the sauce. Together they are very complementary. The squash stuffed homemade tortellini feel like a nice addition. Both are very autumnal to me, so they are timely for this season. And cooking them both using Matfer’s copper sauté and sauce pans made them that much better. That’s what I mean about consistency: excellent ingredients and excellent equipment creates excellent dishes.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
Old school, new school, and everything in-between. I cook using a traditional approach with a modern, current day interpretation. It’s always a dilemma of, "Have I gone far enough with these flavors? Or too far?" I play with taste and texture all of the time.
Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said, "The secret of success is consistency of purpose." Do you agree?
This quote makes an impression on me, because I believe consistency across the board in my culinary world drives success on every level. Consistency creates confidence and return. In truth, it is a simple formula that in real life can be tricky. Consistently use the best ingredients you can find to develop an innovative appealing menu. Consistently work with a creative committed team you can rely on to execute those dishes well, so that patrons will be pleased and will come back. Consistently stay seasonal, yet ahead of the game to keep the work interesting and the restaurant successful!
Personally, what are your favorite ingredients?
For me it is all about flavor. Since I don’t cook them, I love Mexican or Japanese cuisines. If I’m cooking something really simple at home with my wife and daughter, I make scrambled eggs on toast.
Matfer supported the charity Autism Speaks and so did you. Matfer sponsored the October culinary event by providing utensils for the participating chefs. What is your connection to Autism Speaks?
It was a fantastic night for an important cause. The chefs’ camaraderie in the room was amazing. It is a charity dear to my heart as autism affects people close to me, so I was really happy to cook that evening to help. I hope to make a difference. The Matfer products I used for my dishes were great too.
Tools for the Taste
As an executive chef, pork perfection is a promise when preparing your own savory roast using Matfer's Copper Sauté and Sauce Pans, Exoglass® Spatula & Spoon, the Ergonomic Truffle Cutter and the Giesser Messer Knife.