Chef Marc Collins came to fine dining place Circa 1886 in 2001, with the directive to make the hotel restaurant a Southern food destination. While he has steered the kitchen away from strictly Southern, he still keeps the Lowcountry in mind with all of his dishes.
In a interview with Eater, Collins talks about coming to Charleston from a Tex-Mex background and how his cuisine has evolved over time. Circa 1886 recently got a visit from The New York Times and continues to bring in guests from near and far to sample the ever-changing menu. Read on to discover why Collins likes to offer exotic ingredients and how a question he posed helped start the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival.
What was the vision at Circa 1886 when you first joined?
The vision, given to me, was to make this the quintessential Southern restaurant that people would know for Southern food. And we did that for a while. I started picking up books, and I started to learn. They said, "Pick up John Taylor. Here's Charleston Cooking. Find some John T. Edge books, and learn all you can." So that's what I did, and I put my own inflections in it.
Coming from Texas, even though it's Texas, it does have some Southern influence in it. It was easy to make a bit of a change. I took one item, antelope from Texas, and decided to try it over here. I've had that on the menu ever since, and it's been pretty successful. Other than that, it was sort of, find your way—a sink or swim kind of thing. We figured it out.
I started being very Southern in the approach to everything I did. That evolved a bit down the road, when I got a bit too far, and I had a little epiphany. Maybe five or six years ago, I asked everybody, "What do you think the restaurant is?" And they said, "We think it's this kind of place" or "We think it's that kind of place," but nobody said Southern—except for the two people programmed to know that's what we do. I said, "See, nobody thinks that's what we are." So I took that flavor and broadened it and became more international with the South woven through it. I think people that come out to a restaurant, like ours, aren't necessarily looking for the Southern experience. I think they're looking for food that's thought provoking, interesting, fun, and something they think wouldn't work. They want to see something that they wouldn't see or do normally but still have a level of comfort. I try to give them a comforting feeling, push them to the edge, but not over. And that's what we've evolved the food into now.
How has the menu changed? Has there been a menu item that's stayed with you the whole time?
Every time we do a menu, everything changes. I've never done the same thing twice, and that gets hard after a while. This year has been particularly difficult, especially with being short staffed and trying to crank a menu out. Usually we sit down, we work on it, and it's a bit more labor intensive. This year, we've had to rely on our repertoire of things we know and things that work and creating new things that way—rather than being more organic about the situation, but it's worked well.
Since Charleston was the nexus, the largest seaport on the Eastern seaboard, everything came through these seaports. You had Indian spices, West Indies, French, English, and African. To me, this is more a grandstand of food than I think New Orleans is. I think there's so much different culture in this town, from that standpoint and those years and that history. It's easy for me to say "Caribbean influences—I can use that on my menu. African influences, yes. And the Middle East with ties to the spice trade." Maybe it's a stretch in some realms, but even French-Huguenots are big here, so I try to use some French.
It's easy for me to write from all those different styles to do the sort of cuisine that we do. We still have an American South element—grits or fried chicken. Like the next menu, we might have a chicken fried halibut, and people get that. We're going to do buttermilk Carolina gold rice, but we'll do a risotto. We're going to use the buttermilk in it, because buttermilk and fried chicken go together. We do Southern, but we're going to use different ingredients.
Has there been anything over the years that you've tried, and it hasn't worked?
There are things in the past that I would have not done, but I'm finding now that when I do them, I can sell them more readily. Rabbit was one thing. In the past, I couldn't give rabbit away. It's on the menu now, and it sells great. There was a time when I would do tuna, fresh tuna, and for some reason, we just couldn't sell it. And you would think tuna sells. It sells itself. I don't think the preparation was too crazy, just for some reason it didn't sell. We're going to put it back on the menu again, because we've noticed there's changes in the people coming in for dinner. They're more foodies and more adventurous. I think Food Network—curse or not—helped us in some ways.
How has the clientele changed in the 13 years?
It's tough. It's tougher. It's definitely raised the bar for us. You see a lot of home chefs now. People cook at home more often, and they're not as easily wowed. It's hard. You've got to be on your game. The local movement—and I embrace that because of everything it stands for—but I do think that people coming out to dine at a restaurant, like ours, need for a sense of exoticness. They need a sense of "I can't find that product" or "I've never tried that before." You still have to be a little cutting edge. I think we weave those things in that may not be indigenous or local that people have never had before. I think you still need to surprise your guest—give them something different they're not going to find or make at home.
What was your role in starting the Charleston Wine + Food Festival? Why was that important?
I was approached by Angel [Postell], when she worked at the Aquarium, about an event at the Aquarium that somehow involved food. I said, "I don't know if this is a fit for the Aquarium, but what about a Charleston wine and food festival?" And she said, "Hmm." I said, "This city is ripe for it. It's got such a history, lots of chefs, and is the perfect backdrop for something like this." I said, "I don't know why no one is doing one." And she didn't either. She said, "I've got to ask all these other chefs this question, so when I'm done, let's revisit that." Sure enough, she came back to me and said, "What do you mean by that?" And I told her about the food and wine festival in Texas. Not only would it be good for me as a chef, but it would be good for everybody as a chef in this town. What's good for one is good for all.
I really think it's done its job of propelling Charleston into the culinary movement in America. It's amazing to sit and watch too, because the ten year anniversary is coming up on that. It's amazing to think how far back that started. A question was posed to me, and that was the answer I had for it.
What's the future for Circa?
We're considering doing some facelift stuff come January of next year. To brighten the place up a bit more, so it doesn't have this sort of stately feel to it. Most of the big things, for us, is working the volume of business we are all experiencing in Charleston. There's some more theme dinners we're thinking about—a game dinner, our progressive dinner—it's all on my radar. There's never a dull moment.
· All Circa 1886 Coverage [-ECHS-]
· A Taste of Charleston, Old-School and New [NYT]