Ember: Wood-fired honest food
“I actually cooked at her home once for her daughter’s 16th birthday. All these other famous chefs from the Bay Area were there,” beams Brian Collins, a modest man bursting with talent and genuine kindness. I squeal delightedly as he is telling me this dreamy anecdote - he is not just cooking in any ordinary home for just any sweet sixteen-er; he is cooking in the kitchen of Alice Waters. Yes. The Alice Waters. The Holy Mother of the seasonal, local, organic farm-to-table food movement in America! “You are in Alice Water’s home kitchen which is like no other home kitchen. It has a fireplace. A wood-burning oven inside. A beautiful butcher block. Outdoor garden next to it. Antique French everything. That was an experience of a lifetime!” Can you imagine?!
Brian’s love of food stems from his family’s Friday ritual. Every week he, his parents, and his brother would try out new restaurants - different cuisines in different settings - and they would discuss why they loved certain dishes and certain places. Fast forward a few years: his family moved to Arroyo Grande where he attended High School and he met his High School sweetheart, now wife, Harmony. At that time she worked at the local health food store and would bring home all sorts of goodness Brian had never tried before: fresh hummus, kale salads, local honey, brewer’s yeast, ginseng, organic tofu. “These were all new to me at the time and really awakened my palate and opened my mind to trying new things.” Shortly thereafter he got his first job ever at Splash Cafe - frying up potatoes and cod, and stirring creamy clam chowder. It was his first kitchen experience and he was hooked. In 2000, the two 23-year-olds with their 1-year-old baby girl Emma in tow left their cozy Shell Beach home to learn from the City’s best: San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy. The program was 14 months of classes finishing up with a 3-month long internship. Collins played his cards right. Before his internship began and while completing his coursework, he volunteered one day a week in the kitchen at Chez Panisse. He was soon hired on as prep cook and rose through the ranks all the way to the sauté station where one was considered a “pseudo-Sous” Chef. After 6 wonderful years at the famed Berkeley restaurant, Brian and his wife Harmony decided they wanted to raise their little daughter, a kindergartener at the time, in Arroyo Grande. Before starting Ember, Brian cooked at some of the most premier restaurants on the Central Coast such as Windows on the Water in Morro Bay, Lido in Pismo Beach, and Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos. Finally it was time to start a place of his own, “I wanted to bring what I had learned here to the Central Coast. I knew it would be a while before I opened the doors of my own place but I always knew that day would come.” And boy, did he hit it out of the park with Ember!
The moment you enter Ember you instantly feel the warmth of the space: the fire, the food, and the ambiance - everything about this environment is incredibly inviting. The massive turquoise-tiled pizza oven mesmerizes you as flames tickle the perfect amount of char on their culinary creations sitting in cast iron skillets and basking on metal pizza paddles. The beautiful build-out boasts rustic barnyard wood paneling, structural high beams, soft glowing string lights, and a sleek copper bar serving up craft beers and a well-curated wine list. Wonderful wafts of authentic hand-crafted food fill the air: grilled rib-eye steak with garlic confit and avocado chimichurri, wood fired squid with cannellini beans, aioli, and toasted bread crumbs, pan-roasted sea scallops with fried green tomatoes; and at the center of it all is Brian in his big white Chef’s coat, cool, calm, and collected.
Shaking hands with friends and smiling at guests from across the room, Brian ensures that everyone is taken care of and everyone feels connected to the metaphorical communal table. “It just goes back to me being that little kid with my family, that experience. Twenty years ago there weren’t little screens everywhere and internet. It’s just a time to connect again in a real human way. I think that with fire and food it connects you to your inner caveman. Up until 150 years ago we only cooked with fire and coals; there are flavors to be found there with that intense heat.”
The coming months will, as always, bring new items to the Ember menu. “Winter to me is soul food - hearty, stick-to-your-ribs meals, meats that are long-cooked until they are falling-apart-tender.” I know I’ll definitely be there this winter to see what Brian and his team cooks up! A word to the wise: Ember does not take reservations; show up early, stay late. See you at the table.
Kendra Aronson is currently writing, photographing, designing, and self-publishing her first book - The San Luis Obispo Farmers’ Market Cookbook: Simple Seasonal Recipes & Short Stories from the Central Coast of California. Stay in the loop with fresh updates by visiting www.slofarmersmarketcookbook.com. She is also the Editor of Field to Vase, a collaborative online resource about localizing the flower industry.