Tuesday, December 18, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 41
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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

10 questions with Brian Collins: The brains behind Ember in Arroyo Grande talks about his red-hot restaurant

WENDY THIES SELL

Few restaurants on the Central Coast have a line of customers waiting outside before the doors open for dinner, but there is at least one.

Since Ember restaurant in Arroyo Grande opened for business earlier this year, it’s had repeat diners queued up and eager for the exceptional wood-fired cuisine, flatbread pizzas, local boutique wines and craft beer, and seasonal produce-driven menus that change monthly.


AUTHENTICALLY GOOD
Chef Brian Collins (center) and Sous Chef David Marks (left), working together, handcrafting dinners in Ember restaurant’s open kitchen.
PHOTO COURTESY OF KENDRA ARONSON

Ember’s chef and owner Brian Collins, formerly of Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos, Lido in Pismo Beach, and Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, returned to his roots, starting the instantly popular restaurant in his hometown.

WTS: Chef Collins, with Ember’s immediate and sustained success, you must be thrilled! How does it feel? 

Collins: Ember’s success has been very fulfilling. I feel lucky to have this restaurant. You can have a great crew like I do, a solid business plan, and a great location, but a little luck can make the difference. I feel proud to have opened this restaurant. I feel I have a great responsibility to my guests and employees to provide something special. Having your own business is a lot of work, but it’s very gratifying.

WTS: Do you consider starting a restaurant in Arroyo Grande a homecoming of sorts?

Collins: Opening in A.G. was a homecoming for sure. I was in my early 20s when I moved to San Francisco for culinary school. I had wanted my own restaurant since I was 16 years old, and I had moved there with the idea that someday I would move back with the knowledge I had learned and open a small café on the Central Coast. I had never really considered Arroyo Grande until a few months prior to opening the restaurant.

WTS: How did your early restaurant experiences prepare you for Ember?

Collins: My previous jobs had prepared me for opening the restaurant because I had planned it that way. In college or in a university, a curriculum is provided in a more structured way than what you could hope for if your goal is to open a restaurant. Early on, I saw these jobs as a series of ladders. I went in with goals: to learn as much as I could from that particular establishment while making it better than when I started in whatever way possible. More often than not, I was able to accomplish my goals. I was upfront with my employers and worked as though I had a personal stake in the business. I was not afraid of doing anything at any restaurant in order to prepare myself for the day that the doors would open in my own place. A lot of chefs have only been line cooks, prep cooks, dishwashers, or sous chefs. A lot of restaurant managers have only been bus boys, waiters, bartenders, etc. I did both earlier in my career to gain insight into all areas of restaurant service.

WTS: It’s fun to watch you and your crew in the open kitchen. There are a lot of moving parts. Do you read each other’s minds?

Collins: When building the restaurant, I wanted to put the kitchen in the dining room so people could watch us cook. It is a tight space, with a lot of fire, manned by six to seven chefs. The great thing about being open five nights a week is that we have one staff. No lunch cooks versus dinner cooks, just cooks. We know what each of us needs to do to get the food perfectly prepared and served to our guests hot and on time. We read each other’s minds to navigate our way through a busy night’s service. The kitchen at Ember is packed with talent from top to bottom.


EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD
Inspired by Italy’s rustic and simple food, Ember’s excellent cuisine is fresh from the farmers’ market and cooked in a wood-fired oven.
PHOTO COURTESY OF KENDRA ARONSON

WTS: What is the food philosophy here?

Collins: Ember is a family-owned, neighborhood restaurant that focuses on seasonal cooking and live fire. Our monthly changing menu features the best locally grown produce, fresh seafood, and sustainably raised meats. The menu at Ember is designed so that you can drop by and enjoy a tasty bite on your way home from work or come in and make a night of it. We really focus on our “share” plates so folks can come in and enjoy a variety of flavors.

WTS: What is the most popular dish?

Collins: The most popular menu item at Ember is the rib-eye steak. The rib-eye has been on the menu since day one and has never come off. It is unique for several reasons. We get whole prime ribs that we break down and then hand-cut each steak. The steak is then trimmed again to leave the perfect amount of fat. The steak is grilled over glowing red oak embers on our Argentinian-style grill, so the steak is not only cooking from direct heat underneath it but also from the intense radiant heat surrounding it. Also, our grill chef Adam, a Santa Maria native, really knows what he is doing. 

WTS: What is the biggest challenge in owning a restaurant?

Collins: The most challenging part is you can never really predict how a day, night, week, or month will go. You have to be prepared for anything to happen at anytime. An example of that would be: Refrigerators love to break Saturday night at 7 o’clock or the dishwasher is sick.

WTS: What is most rewarding?

Hottest restaurant in town
Ember is located at 1200 E. Grand Ave., Arroyo Grande. Open for dinner Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. For more information, click on emberwoodfire.com. Ember does not accept reservations.

Collins: The most rewarding part of owning a restaurant is providing so many positive things for the community, things like providing 30 jobs to the community. Watching staff members learn and grow with the company. Helping to put Arroyo Grande on the map as a food town. Meeting so many wonderful people who have been so loyal and generous has been amazing.

WTS: Any changes on the horizon?

Collins: We are planning on building an enclosed patio this spring. 

WTS: Being a chef that focuses on seasonal produce, what is your favorite season?

Collins: It’s hard for me to pick a favorite season. It’s a tie between summer and late fall. Summer, because the markets are so bountiful and the food is vibrant, colorful, and fun. Late fall, because when the weather gets cold and rainy, cooking anything fireside is the most comforting thing in the world.

 

Sun food and wine writer Wendy Thies Sell’s favorite season is sweater, jeans, and boots season. Contact her at wthies@santamariasun.com




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