Chef Brendan Collins of Birch in Hollywood picks hard work over play

At Birch, chef Brendan Collins makes staff meals a test for his cooks

Brendan Collins, chef-owner of the recently opened Birch in Hollywood, credits Margaret Thatcher for his restaurant career. Well, sort of. When Thatcher closed British mines in the '80s, Collins' father, once a mine worker, became a relief pub landlord. He and his family traveled around Nottinghamshire in England, running pubs when the landlords were on holiday. During his father's part-time stints, Collins says he always gravitated toward the kitchens. It was either that or become a football player (the British kind), which is what he really wanted to do.

Collins has remained a die-hard Manchester United fan, but instead of spending his time on the pitch, he's become one of the most well-regarded chefs in Los Angeles. Most recently, he closed Waterloo and City, an English gastropub in Culver City, and opened Birch, a homage to his hometown in England, which happens to grow birch trees. In a recent interview, Collins talked about liking to make his cooks sweat over staff meals and his favorite thing to eat at the end of the night.

What's your idea of comfort food? My comfort food is usually a sandwich at the end of the night when I get home and I can finally sit on my couch with my feet up. You know, a grilled cheese with some organic turkey and a little butter lettuce salad.

What's a staff meal at your restaurant like? Usually it's what's in the fridge, and it's really a test for the cooks. There's always a lot of chicken, always a lot of ground beef, always a lot of rice and dry pasta, always salads. And then it's basically whatever we've got that's sort of coinciding with the menu. Then we say, "Go and make something, and make it delicious" — and then we sort of score them on it. Some people get ridiculed for a couple of days, and some people get a nice big pat on the back.

One thing you want people to know about your new restaurant? I want people to appreciate the fact that we're working really hard and that we're cooking really good food. I've never been a cook that's in it for the glory. It's important to understand that this is a business; it's not just a plaything, and we're not just here to get awards and pats on the back. I just want people to come in here and enjoy themselves, eat good food, drink good alcohol and have a good time.

What do your tattoos mean? I like to hide mine because my tattoos are for me; they're not for anybody else. They're a reminder of my life and where I've come from, and my demons and stuff like that. There's a dragon underneath a family tree that's being chopped off; that's to signify the fact that I don't really have a good relationship with my family. Then I have a Buddhist prayer that says, 'Inside the belly of man roars fire.' And then this one is not finished [on the underside of his arm]. It's sun shining through storm clouds. It's to signify that I've gotten older, you know, and I've got my own family.

If you could have dinner with anyone, whom would it be and what would you eat? Mark Twain and Winston Churchill. And I'd like to sit and eat roasted foie gras.

1634 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 960-3369, www.birchlosangeles.com

jenn.harris@latimes.com

Twitter: @Jenn_Harris_

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