Third part of 3 parts, please start here with Part 1
“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.”
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