When we arrived at Birch, in the heart of Hollywood, we were pleasantly surprised by the crisp, white, minimalist interior and refreshing succulents. What our mouths and stomachs were in for was definitely not simple! Birch uses exciting, expertly handled ingredients with a burst of flavor and colors that are a stark contrast to interior design but mimic the flavor and beat of the Hollywood streets.
With an extensive and impressive resume, Chef Brendan Collins came from across the pond to show Los Angeles how hard work and risk go hand in hand to create a successful restaurant. Collins and his team really rolled out the red carpet for us with a private tasting and a peak into the heart and soul of Birch.
Labeling Men: Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into cooking?
Brendan Collins: My name is Brendan Collins. I’m from England, Nottingham in England. I started cooking at a really young age because my mum and dad ran pubs in England. So I knew it was something I wanted to do. Left school at 16, went to hotel and cooking school. I finished and got my first job in London. Worked in London for about 10 years on and off, I also worked in Austria for a while, and then I worked in the North of England for a while. We opened in a 10th Century castle and turned it into like a boutique hotel. I moved out here in 2002, I was the chef-de-cuisine at Melisse in Santa Monica. I was the chef there for four years, I decided I want to branch out and do something else. I went to the Palihouse group, ran the Palihouse hotels for about two years, worked in corporate, then decided I wanted to do go out on my own and I opened Waterloo City in Culver City and that was my first owned restaurant and I ran that for about 5 years. I also ran Larry’s in Venice, that’s one of my restaurants. I have a percentage partnership in The Corner Door, which is in Culver City, take care of the food and menus over there. Then we opened up Birch in March of this year.
Labeling Men: You’re busy!
Brendan Collins: [Laughs] It’s a lot. So we opened up Birch in March. I’m not the kind of guy that goes with the flow; I like to swim upstream, so I decided to open up a relatively fine dining restaurant in Hollywood, which has not had a fine dining restaurant in a long time.
Labeling Men: I was pretty surprised how high end the menu is compared to everything else that’s on this street, which is probably why it’s so appealing.
Brendan Collins: Los Angeles is changing, it’s re-gentrifying rapidly, the city itself is growing really quickly and there is an audience for good food. Being a chef and being a restaurant owner, there are risks you have to take unless you got millions of dollars, which I don’t have, or you have a group behind you that has millions dollars, which I also don’t have. So, I was looking for a small space, something that we could be really creative in, something we could do a really good job in and then do something where there has not been that in a very long time. For that, you have to take a risk and go into a location where the rent is affordable, like very affordable because rent can kill restaurants. That was one of the reasons that I closed down Waterloo and City, because the rents were getting really, really high, especially for that neighborhood. You know, Culver City went through a huge gentrification and landlords like to take advantage of that. So I sold that restaurant so I could do this, I took the risk on this space and so far [knocks on wood] it’s paid off. We’ve been very lucky to get great reviews, win great awards. It’s still very early days for the restaurant, but we are happy. We can be very creative and artistic. We have a very small but well built kitchen so we can be really artistic with the food and really creative combinations. Luckily, the customers are very blown away by the quality of the food and the intricacy of the menu and, like you say, for where it is. The beauty of Hollywood that you don’t get in the other areas of town is there is a lot of atmosphere here; just the buzz on the street when you come out of the restaurant is like, action. It’s a big city life, you know what I mean? You don’t get that in Santa Monica, you don’t get that in Culver City, or Silverlake. Here, you get it and a really great menu and you can kind of enjoy the craziness after you’ve dined. We took every step not just with the food, but with the bar program, with the cocktails even down to buying a fuckin’ $7,000 coffee machine so the coffee is really good. We took every step to make sure that the product we put out is of an exceptional quality. It was a risk, and I probably wouldn’t do it again – no, that’s not true. But so far so good, I’m happy with what we are doing and I’m happy with the reception that we are getting from both magazines and newspapers, but more importantly that customers when they come are enjoying themselves.
Labeling Men: Definitely. So what inspired the type of menu you are creating?
Brendan Collins: I knew I wanted to do kind of shared plates, so I really wanted to look at it from a more traditional end, so I wanted to go Mediterranean like tapas. But I wanted it to be a melting pot of cuisine, like America is. So we took the basic traditions and structures of Meza and that was really the jumping off point and then it was just cooking food that inspires me and has lots of flavor. Because the restaurant is of a specific size, it gives us the opportunity to play with food and really refine the cuisine that we are doing, and it gives us extra time to make it look pretty and cook it correctly. There is no kind of boundaries, it’s not like, “Oh, shit, we are doing 400 people tonight maybe we shouldn’t plate it that way.” It gives us the artistic opportunity to do things in a really great fashion.
Labeling Men: That’s really cool. So why the name Birch?
Brendan Collins: Well, it’s a little hokey and I hate to sound pretentious, but I grew up in Nottingham, which is very famous for its forests, ya know. Robin Hood and all that fuckin’ nonsense. Where I lived, there was a crop of Birch trees and as a country boy, you go out into the wild and out into the wilderness a lot cause it’s kind of your playground and always the Birch trees were very striking to me. In the summertime it’s got the kind of gray with the green moss and leaves and they are all full and fresh. Then you go through autumn and into winter, where the leaves turn bright red and the bark is completely white and it’s such a striking contrast and I wanted the food to be quite similar. The restaurant I wanted to be kind of simple and plain looking but with striking things, like the way we set up the bar. The bar is kind of, like the bottles are our leaves. The food I wanted to be very seasonal and change throughout the seasons but always have a focal point.
Labeling Men: It definitely comes across. It’s so simple, but the juxtaposition to the simplicity of the restaurant is so different than fine dining restaurants where you are like, uncomfortable sitting there and the food is so contrasted to how simple the design is.
Brendan Collins: I like to do things like that. When you walk past the restaurant, you know you are on Cahuenga Blvd. and there are all these dives bars and dodgy nightclubs, and then there’s us that’s bright, fresh. You come in and it’s simple, minimalistic, almost plain looking. Then the food starts coming out and you see all the different plates that we use and the beauty of the plating of the food. Then the cocktails start coming and if you order four cocktails, I guarantee you they are coming in four different glasses. We worked hard, and a lot of thought went into it and so far I think we are managing to pull it off. Not just making it taste good, but it looks nice too. Because initially you eat and drink with your eyes and if you get a half glass of flat beer you see it is a half glass of flat beer, you know what I mean? So there are a lot of things that we worked on. Even how we set up the kitchen, the plates exposed. It’s all done purposefully, to make it appealing to the eye. I purposely didn’t put televisions in the restaurant even though we wanted it to be a bar, a lively bar but, you know, the kitchen is the television. You know, where we placed the banquette and where we placed these mirrors, you can sit here and see the kitchen, and sit at that table and look into the mirror and see the kitchen.
Labeling Men: A lot of attention to detail!
Brendan Collins: That was kind of a happy accident [laughs]. The kitchen might distract you, but at least it’s interesting. When the light goes down and it’s dark in here, we had to dull out the light because it was like a spaceship but it looks good because the lighting in there is kind of subtle too, so it looks nice. Plus, I purposefully put the glass so we can scream and shout in the kitchen at each other and no one knows.
Labeling Men: [Laughs] Your secret place!
Brendan Collins: Exactly, if that little door in the window gets closed and there is no food coming out of it, you know I’m shouting at someone [laughs].
Labeling Men: [Laughs] Something’s about to go down! So you’ve lived and worked all over the place, where is your favorite? Or is it LA?
Brendan Collins: Well, um, London is an amazing city and I lived there for a long time. I left London, I wouldn’t say necessarily because I was fed up with it. But it’s always about opportunities and it’s very easy to get stuck in a rut. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to not live and work in Culver City anymore, I wanted something different. Even though I have a lot of good friends and made a lot of good clients through the restaurant, it just got the point where it turned into a job. As a chef, it can’t be a job it has to be exciting, it has to be some different every day otherwise it can get very mundane and monotonous. I’m enjoying working in Hollywood, I enjoyed working in Santa Monica. I mean, I enjoy, I like the city of Los Angeles. First away, I’m married and have a kid now, so my wife and daughter actually get to enjoy the weather and the beach and all that stuff; I just basically work in the kitchen seven days a week. But for a family, I think it’s much better to be in Los Angeles instead of London. As a young, single man, I think London is a better city than Los Angeles. It depends on where you are in your life.
Labeling Men: I’m surprised you say that. Like for us living here being single, I don’t see Los Angeles as a family place at all.
Brendan Collins: Oh, it is! You’d be surprised. I love London, but from a personal perspective for me, when my daughter’s not in school and we live 10 minutes away from the beach, that’s a complete game changer.
Labeling Men: Do you have any signature dishes that someone would identify you by?
Brendan Collins: I think each restaurant has its own signature. Coming out of the Birch kitchen right now, I think it’s the Monk Fish Tikka Masala and the Pork Shank. They are definitely the two dishes that people seem to go for. Also, the Rabbit Baklava dish that’s also very popular. It’s hard to have signature dishes because we work so closely with the seasons, the dish might be on for a month, might be on for three months, it might be on for two weeks. I would say those three, even though the main part of the dish stays similar, the garnishes change all the time, what we are serving it with different vegetables certainly change all the time.
Labeling Men: Is there anything you are particularly known for?
Brendan Collins: Well, my restaurant Waterloo helped me build my name as a chef. I was very famous for the charcuterie program that we did. But like I said, been there done that, time for something else now. Even though we do have bits of charcuterie here, the kitchen is much smaller and less storage to make it the way it needs to be made. But yeah, I would probably say charcuterie.
Labeling Men: Do you have a favorite dish you’ve ever cooked, like any restaurant or at home?
Brendan Collins: You know, the Monk Fish Tikka Masala is excellent. I kind of conceptually had the idea in my head, because I would like to eventually do an Indian gastropub, that’s what I want to do.
Labeling Men: We will be there.
Brendan Collins: But I think Indian food is only now making its mark in Los Angeles. But I wanted to play with some Indian dishes at Birch to experiment.
Labeling Men: Well it’s big in London, right?
Brendan Collins: Yeah, huge. We have great Indian food, like fuckin’ phenomenal Indian food. Probably better than in India! So I knew I wanted to do something with Monk Fish and I wanted to do it Tikka Masala style. So we marinate it and then we grill it over charcoal and we serve it with a puree of lye pickle. It’s not really a masala sauce, it’s more like an Indian butter chicken sauce, a little spicier, tomato base. The Monk Fish can really hold up to the spices. We put this crispy fried rice on top of it. When it comes to the table it’s a big wide cracker and they pull it off the skewer and we smash the crispy rice. It’s good, it’s tasty and it’s one of those dishes you can just keep eating and eating.
Labeling Men: I love that you are so interactive with the dishes at the table! That’s really cool.
Brendan Collins: It’s all part of the theater; it’s part of the experience. We aren’t too crazy about it, like we don’t want to put too much pomp and circumstance into the whole things, but just a little here and there, make for entertainment, instead of just throwing dishes down. It just adds a little, and helps the waiters get a little extra tip [laughs].
Labeling Men: So I noticed, are those Birkenstocks?
Brendan Collins: Yup, I only wear Birkenstocks.
Labeling Men: I’m going to commend you on the best shoes that I’ve seen on a chef! What normally do you wear for comfort?
Brendan Collins: I’ve only ever worn Birkenstocks [in the kitchen] for the past 18 years. And I only wear Hugo Boss trousers; they are just so comfortable and they fit.
Labeling Men: You are pretty stylish! What has been your best experience or highest achievement as a chef?
Brendan Collins: Probably being able to travel the world. It’s one of the industries where you get to meet people all over the world and I don’t think there is a city throughout Europe and through America now where I couldn’t go to a major city and half way there hit someone up and say, “Let’s meet up for a beer,” you know, that’s really great. Not just being a chef and being creative, but being a businessman and earning money. People always say, I’m a chef because I love being a chef. I’m a chef because I love being a chef, but I also love getting paid for my job. Know what I mean? There are a lot of people out there that say, I do it because I love it, but I’m sorry, you’re a fuckin’ idiot, because I love it but I also like to be paid for it too. But you have to work hard, you have to work extremely hard and you have to make correct moves. I mean, now, I’m dangerously close to 40 years old and I start work at 10 o’clock in the morning and I never leave this restaurant until probably 11:30, 12 o’clock, so that’s a 14 hour day and I do that a minimum of 6 days a week. On top of that I have a family, I have a wife and I have a daughter, but that’s the commitment and dedication you have to put in to be a great chef. If you think you’re going to get what I’ve got by working 40 hours a week, forget it, it’s not coming. You’ll be a 15-dollar an hour line cook for the rest of your life. If you are prepared to work months in a row, you know, when we first opened this restaurant, I didn’t take a day off for 4 months. Not one single day, and most of the days were 14-16 hours long. You would think now, at the age I’m at now, with the amount of businesses and restaurants and things that I have, I shouldn’t have to do that. But, you do, if you want it to work right and you want the restaurant to be great and successful, that’s the kind of effort that you have to put in.
Labeling Men: That says a lot about you as a person.
Brendan Collins: I’m not the kind of chef that sits there and plays Scrabble, I’m down there peeling carrots, dicing vegetables, and whatever it takes.
Labeling Men: You care.
Brendan Collins: I put everything into it. Sometimes probably too much [laughs].
Labeling Men: Well, it has definitely paid off!
Our first course dove right in with the Spanish Octopus, blistered shishito peppers with hummus and squid ink. At first I was cautious; octopus is not normally my go-to, but with a slight char and the combination of ingredients it was perfect. The shishito peppers offered a slight kick to the clean taste of the octopus; the entire dish was nearly gone as soon as he set it down!
Our second course was the perfect way to bid adieu to summer with Sweet Summer Corn on the Cob served with a truffle marscapone, truffled brown butter and fresh truffles shaved onto the corn at the table. The subtle and creative details that Chef Collins incorporate propels each dish to the next level.
Our third and final course was the Duck-Duck-Duck. This savory dish uses duck four ways: crispy duck, duck sugo, which is a tomato based sauce, duck breast, and a fried duck egg that was served over crisp gnocchi. This is a hearty dish shows the variance in flavors in every part of the duck and was absolutely exquisite.
Our impeccable meal was accompanied by refreshing and gorgeous cocktails; the pictures truly do not do them justice. Order the #5 with Thai basil, vodka, peach, and matcha green tea, and the #2 with rosewater, strawberry tequila, dry sherry, Lambic, and chili bitters, just trust us.
1634 N Cahuenga Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028
By Mischa Teichgraeber
Photographs by Amelia Williams