Living in Pismo Beach – Brian Collins

Living in Pismo Beach, where we connect you with some of our favorite people who live and work on the Central Coast. Those community and business leaders who make living on the Coast such a unique and diverse experience.

Episode #7

Brian Collins
Chef & Owner of Ember in Arroyo Grande, CA

Brian Collins Chef & Owner of Ember, joins Ashlea Foster Boyer, Shannon Bowdey & Jordan Hamm on Living In Pismo Beach.

Ashlea Boyer:

Hey ladies.

Jordan Hamm:

Hey.

Shannon Bowdey:

Hey.

Ashlea Boyer:

Wow. What a week, right? We have COVID, we have Black Lives Matter, and now we have fires in Shell Beach. It’s like lions and tigers and bears.

Shannon Bowdey:

Oh my!

Jordan Hamm:

Yeah.

Ashlea Boyer:

Oh my!

Jordan Hamm:

It’s been an, “Oh my,” week, for sure.

Ashlea Boyer:

[crosstalk 00:00:46]. I’m really glad that the first responders were able to get on it and get the backup they needed. And it was amazing how close it came to some of our good friends’ houses…

Jordan Hamm:

Yeah.

Ashlea Boyer:

But such a relief. I know it’s not completely out, but it’s close.

Shannon Bowdey:

Yeah, yeah.

Ashlea Boyer:

Let’s say that’s a good way to end not so good a start of the week. Anyway, all right.

Ashlea Boyer:

Okay. I’m excited for our guest today, Brian Collins, chef and owner of Ember Restaurant in Arroyo Grande. A native of the area, Brian was drawn to food and cooking at an early age. He received formal training at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.

Ashlea Boyer:

And while there, he secured an intern position at Berkeley’s famous Chez Panisse, where after graduation Brian was offered a full time position which turned into a six year stint cooking under the famous Alice Waters who quite literally invented the term, “Farm to table,” and sustainable farming and all of that good stuff so… How exciting.

Shannon Bowdey:

After returning to the Central Coast, Brian held positions at Lido restaurant as both sous chef and executive chef. He followed that post as the chef for Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos. Brian created weekly changing menus that gained the restaurant notoriety as one of the region’s top culinary destinations.

Jordan Hamm:

Finally, it was time to do something all on his own. Brian discovered a property in his hometown of Arroyo Grande and he and his wife, Harmony, opened Ember. Let’s welcome Brian to our meeting.

Ashlea Boyer:

Awesome. Let’s go get him.

Brian Collins:

How are you guys?

Ashlea Boyer:

Doing well. It’s good to see your face.

Brian Collins:

Thanks, yeah. Good to see everybody.

Jordan Hamm:

Thanks for joining us.

Brian Collins:

Oh, you bet. Thank you for having me on.

Jordan Hamm:

Yeah, of course.

Ashlea Boyer:

Since I got you the questions so late, did you have anything that you wanted to add or change?

Brian Collins:

Oh, no, I don’t think so. It looks good. Yeah, I’m at your service.

Ashlea Boyer:

Okay. All right. So did you get a chance to watch any of the other interview links that I sent to you?

Brian Collins:

I watched a little bit of Karen’s and then-

Ashlea Boyer:

Okay cool.

Brian Collins:

Other than that, I just kind of jumped right out of the restaurant and over here real fast and yeah.

Ashlea Boyer:

Awesome. Well I’m excited to see you on Father’s Day. I think it’s going to be mother Father’s Day, because Mother’s Day got the short end of the stick this year.

Brian Collins:

It did unfortunately.

Ashlea Boyer:

Okay. We’ll just start and go through the questions. We’ve already recorded the intro so it’ll keep it short for you and get you back out to the restaurant, okay?

Brian Collins:

Okay, cool.

Ashlea Boyer:

Awesome.

Brian Collins:

Yeah.

Ashlea Boyer:

Okay. So I know you have a long history on the Central Coast. Tell us about growing up here and what started your passion for cooking?

Brian Collins:

Okay. Well, I moved here with my family in 1990 and I went to Paulding Middle School. Immediately fell in love with Arroyo Grande, Pismo Beach, the whole Central Coast. Just really loved the vibe here and the great community, of course. And I guess cooking started with the very first job I got as a teenager. And I worked down at the Splash Cafe in Pismo Beach and that was kind of my first restaurant job as well.

Ashlea Boyer:

Awesome.

Brian Collins:

I was 15 back then. And then I guess… Both my parents worked so sometimes when you’d get home from school it’s like, “All right, if you’re hungry you got to make it.” So that got me into the kitchen, too. Had family that cooked a lot. My mom, my grandmother… or both my grandmothers really good cooks. And so that kind of nudged me in that direction as well. And I think I was about 18 or so and I really wanted to go to culinary school and learn. Get some classic, proper training and work in a big city restaurant and go that route.

Ashlea Boyer:

Awesome.

Brian Collins:

Yeah.

Jordan Hamm:

That is so neat. So then you went to the Bay Area and you were able to train with Alice Waters, which was so amazing, as an intern and then she hired you full time.

Brian Collins:

Yes.

Jordan Hamm:

Can you just tell us about that experience and what you learned and all the takeaways that you brought here to your restaurant?

Brian Collins:

Yeah, absolutely. An incredible experience from the beginning to the end. Started off as an intern and literally knocked on the back door of the kitchen and just spoke with the chef to see if I can get my foot in the door. And I was lucky there was one more internship for the whole year so I filled that. And I even volunteered a little bit of time while I was going to culinary school, one week in the kitchen. After that, it was just such an invaluable training experience because they make the food just like we do at Ember. Everything is from scratch and everything’s from a farm and it’s a hundred percent raw ingredients. So there’s no buying in the tomato sauce or anything like that, you make every single thing and it’s really exciting. And they cook with the seasons.

Brian Collins:

So every vegetable has… There’s baby vegetables and they grow up and you cook them all differently. I think that the experience cooking and to be able to build a wide foundation of knowledge was really important for me, being a young cook in my first job out of culinary school. Couldn’t ask for a better place to work.

Brian Collins:

So cooking. Definitely taught me a lot about cooking. It also taught me a lot about the importance of a really good staff and team. Teamwork, for sure. Not only in the kitchen, but in the front of the house. And that was the first restaurant I’d worked at where everybody got along. There’s a classic thing in restaurants where it’s like the kitchen versus the waiters for some reason. They broke all that down and it was one team and I think that that is so important.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah.

Brian Collins:

And I can go on and on and on, there’s a bunch of things. I love the restaurant.

Ashlea Boyer:

Well, that’s one thing I noticed when I’m at Ember is how much care the waitstaff has in describing the food and how much they can speak to it. How many restaurants you go to and you ask the slightest little question and they have no clue. And that isn’t as much to do with them as maybe no one bothering to give them the details. So it’s really one of my favorite parts of the experience there.

Brian Collins:

Thank you, that’s what we [inaudible 00:07:30]. So we come out with a new menu every month at Ember and the first day of the menu change, we have all those servers and bussers and bartenders come in and we do a menu meeting. I describe the dishes in detail, everybody takes their notes, and as we’re describing it, the kitchen kind of has a dish… So when I’m finished describing this pasta dish, then they’d bring it out and then people get to see it, they get to taste it, ask any more questions. And so we do that with all the new additions that come out at the restaurant.

Shannon Bowdey:

That’s awesome. Most of the restaurants you go to they read off what it all is on their little notepad, but your people they know it.

Brian Collins:

We know it, yeah.

Shannon Bowdey:

They have a passion for it and I love that.

Brian Collins:

Hopefully, yeah.

Jordan Hamm:

Shannon, did you want to ask your…

Shannon Bowdey:

Oh, I’m sorry. Okay, yeah. Okay. Ember has had incredible success since it opened. Have you considered other locations?

Brian Collins:

Oh we’ve certainly been offered a bunch, but we’ve been very fortunate. Yeah. The restaurant has… Frankly, it just surprised me how successful it become almost immediately. And in a lot of ways, we weren’t really prepared for that and in a lot of ways we were prepared for it. I think with Ember, it’s definitely kind of like all my focus and all the years of experience working at different restaurants went into opening Ember restaurant. I think other people, when they open a place, they’re already thinking of like, “Okay, the second place is going to be like this and this and this.” I never really had that forethought to do. Trust me, one restaurant is plenty of work.

Jordan Hamm:

I believe it.

Brian Collins:

I don’t know. Doubling it seems a little… We’ll see, but never say never. Yeah, maybe someday.

Shannon Bowdey:

Well good, good. Thank you.

Ashlea Boyer:

Well, we’re all… Oh, sorry, Jordan, I stepped on you. [crosstalk 00:00:09:39].

Jordan Hamm:

No that’s okay. That’s all right. So we were going to ask you how you come up with your menu ideas. I love how you present it to the staff and I was going to volunteer to be a taste tester for one year. But it sounds like you already have enough of those.

Brian Collins:

Yeah, we have a few. We could always use one more, though. The menu always starts off with the season that we’re in. So we’ll just say in another month or so… So next month’s menu we’ll get the corn is really coming in and green beans, heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, summer squash, et cetera, et cetera. The salmon season is coming to an end, but the albacore season is beginning. That’s kind of where we always start and we just really just make a simple list of ingredients and we’ll run…

Brian Collins:

And from there we’re like, “Okay, the heirloom tomato salad with fresh mozzarella, that’ll be delicious.” We always want to showcase the ingredient and the quality and the freshness. So that’s really where it starts. And kind of behind the scenes, we have so many stations in the kitchen. We’ll have the wood oven station, we’ll have the grill station, our saute, and then the dessert slash salad station.

Brian Collins:

So we kind of have to fill in the slots there a little bit. You can’t put too much on the wood oven or that person will get buried and you can’t have too much on sautee. So sometimes we’ll start with dishes that we absolutely want to do, we have to do these. And then we fill in the blanks from there and that is something cool. I think the kitchen staff in Ember, we don’t get bored of the same old, same old because that menu changes every month. I’ve worked at some restaurants where it’s the same menu not only year round, but just forever and ever. And there’s nothing wrong with that, certainly. But I just wanted it to be a little bit more about the seasonality.

Ashlea Boyer:

Except the s’mores. The marshmallow dessert, that cannot ever leave the menu.

Brian Collins:

I don’t know what you’re talking about. That is the most popular dish at the restaurant period.

Ashlea Boyer:

I think there might be a cult following for that dessert.

Brian Collins:

Oh, yeah. Well we kind of tried to be smart and take it off this month and try something else and people revolted against that. We put it right back on immediately and it stayed there ever since.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah. It’s ridiculous. I know Lynn Diehl visited you recently after the reopening and she said she was just going to order two of the fried green tomato with the lobster salad and one of the s’more and call it a day because those were the things that she couldn’t stop thinking about.

Brian Collins:

Yeah. I mean, you got to get it. If you haven’t had it yet, it’s like, you must. Yeah.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yes, yeah. All right. So being that is the subject of the day with the whole last three months of what we’ve been dealing with and I know we’re all excited that Ember’s developed a dine-in experience to offer guests once again. And I also have to say as a side note, it was great seeing you take advantage of your unscheduled time off. You got a whole new parking lot redesign there it looks beautiful with lighting and everything.

Brian Collins:

Yeah. Several upgrades. We did some work out on our patio in the garden that’s out there to beautify it and make it a little bit more user-friendly. And inside the restaurant, something that I’m really excited about, is right there in the dining room, we have built a wine cellar. So it’s got windows and a glass door so you can actually see into the cellar and it’s temperature, humidity controlled. Everything’s perfectly dialed in and it looks really good in there. Kind of something else to look at when you’re in there and you’re enjoying your food, looking around the room. And yeah, the parking lot is brand new. Coming back to some updates has been really nice.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah.

Brian Collins:

And the dine-in thing is working. It’s going, for sure. We’re doing it by reservation only for the time being. I think people are really loving the fact that they can get that reservation at Ember Restaurant. And it’s been fantastic. We’ve been booking out every single table all week long so it’s pretty cool. And then Father’s Day is coming up this weekend and we still have several tables left for sure, but it’s just good to be back in the restaurant again and doing it. It’s been a very interesting three months and it certainly makes you appreciate all that you have. And we’re very fortunate to once again have the community come out and embrace the restaurant and be so supportive.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah, definitely. I know that we were driving by it during [inaudible 00:14:59] it was hard seeing it all empty. It’s great to be back.

Brian Collins:

Yeah, it’s great. Thank you.

Ashlea Boyer:

All right. Well, this has been so fun and I’m looking forward, like I said, to our Father’s Day on the patio. My husband, Michael, who has a preexisting condition can’t go everywhere so that was his one request was outside on the patio. We’re looking forward to it.

Brian Collins:

Very good. We’re looking forward to seeing you there and to seeing everyone else down at the restaurant.

Ashlea Boyer:

Awesome.

Brian Collins:

Thank you so much for having me on.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah thank you so much, Brian. Thanks for taking the time.

Jordan Hamm:

Thanks Brian.

Shannon Bowdey:

Thanks Brian.

Brian Collins:

Any time. Bye Jordan, bye Shannon.

Ashlea Boyer:

So that was fun.

Jordan Hamm:

Yeah.

Ashlea Boyer:

And looking forward to next week, we’ve got another great interview on deck. So, once again, this is Ashlea Boyer.

Jordan Hamm:

Jordan Hamm.

Shannon Bowdey:

And Shannon Bowdey.

Ashlea Boyer, Shannon Bowdey & Jordan Hamm:

With the Pismo Beach Homes Team.

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