While in high school, Ryan Collins worked two rather serendipitous gigs — he assisted the Marina Variety Store catering team and was a cook at seafood house Gilligan's. These two stints would later serve to set him up in his current position as chef, kitchen manager, and culinary mind behind the Marina Variety burger. For the past 11 years, Collins has toiled to bring the restaurant's burger game up with new qualities of beef, better bread, and instituting hand-cut fries.
How did you get to Marina Variety Store?
My parents' neighbor helped run the catering business, so I ended up meeting my boss, Mike Altine, for the first time while catering with them, when I was in high school. Later, a friend who worked here asked if I wanted to make some more money waiting tables, so when I came in for my interview with Mike, he remembered me from the catering.
I was on the floor serving for about three months. When I was in high school, I had also worked in the back of house at Gilligan's in Mount Pleasant, so I liked being in the kitchen. I was itching to get back in there. When I finally got back in the kitchen, it was hard at first. It wasn't the corporate setting I was used to. I had to spend time learning all the family recipes and their ways of cooking. It took me a while to grasp it, but I did and I've been here ever since — for the past 11 years. I worked my way up to where I am now. I like working here because we're a big family and we take care of each other.
So, you're pretty much a self-taught chef?
Yes, self taught. Mike allows me to take the reins on things and tells me to be creative. I have a fine arts degree, after all. My mother worked for Johnson and Wales when it was here in Charleston. I was always with her when I was little, running around the kitchens and the halls. I was always immersed in it. My family loved to eat and loved to cook. We were always in the kitchen. It comes naturally, and it progressed as I wanted to grow and challenge myself to learn new things. Wanting to learn new techniques is what propels me forward here. When I create new specials or work on new menu items, I think of how I can push it to take our Southern seafood restaurant to the edge to where we're not your typical seafood restaurant.
How does the burger do at a seafood restaurant?
One of our biggest sellers is our burgers, but not just because we serve it at the bar downstairs, because people love that burger. I can't say it's anything extraordinary — we choose a quality meat product, and then we use very minimal additions to make the burger what it is. It took us a while to find a bun that we really wanted to use. Once we nailed the bun and the meat, people can choose from a variety of cheeses to put on the burger. The specialty burgers are pretty dynamite as well.
What are some of the craziest specials you've run?
I ran one, a week ago, that seemed a little over the top. It was a pork belly and chuck-blend burger with sauteed onions and mushrooms sandwiched between two patties, with a fried green tomato on top, drizzled with a Gorgonzola cream cheese sauce. We pride ourselves on our burgers because people love them, and we try to push the envelope on our burger specials. We do a lot of research. We're always looking at recipes and watching cooking television. Sriracha has been around for forever, but since it's become more popular and mainstream in the past year and a half, we've been going through bottles of it like crazy around here. We make slaw, mayonnaise, mix it in the burgers — it's boundless what you can do with it.
Food excites me. You can't claim all the create genius yourself however, because I think every chef is inspired by other chefs around them. Someone may say something in the kitchen, and I hear it and think it might be a good idea. It's a collaboration. Anything creative in the kitchen is a collaboration of what you hear and what you see. I can't give all the credit to myself.
Was the meat mix you use now the one they used when you came aboard?
The quality wasn't as good as what we were trying to achieve. It took us a little while to find the right blend and a company that could provide that blend. We wanted to find a blend that, once cooked, had that flavor we were looking for. Once we hit that mark a few years ago, burger sales have skyrocketed here.
We use a brioche bun. It's a dense bun that holds in juices better than a potato roll. It's all about what will soak up all the flavor without falling apart. That's the one thing I hate when I'm eating a burger — if I get down to the end, and I'm holding two-thirds of the patty and a fourth of the bun.
Anything creative in the kitchen is a collaboration of what you hear and what you see. What's your favorite burger besides your own?
There was a place in Spartanburg, South Carolina, called Ike's, right near a railroad track. My grandfather would take me in there, and I would devour two of these burgers. The cook would always turn around and look at me and just be astonished because he knew big construction workers that couldn't' finish two burgers. I don't know if it's the memories with my grandfather, or if it was your simple hole-in-the-wall kind of place where they had a flat top grill and a good enjoyable burger with hand-cut fries. It was simple with a piece of iceberg lettuce, tomato and cheese. It wasn't extravagant. When I think about it, I get the taste in my mouth, and I start to crave it. You really start to crave it.
I think another thing that place got right is they paid attention to what went with the burger. These days people think it's all about the burger, but when I finish that I still want something a little extra to snack on. Hand-cut fries are where it's at. For the longest time we did the crinkle cut fries, and we switched to hand-cutting a few months ago. Now we're going through cases of potatoes a week, because people devour them. You can't beat hand-cut fries as a side.
Have burger orders changed over the years?
People usually keep to the traditional way a burger is presented all the way: lettuce, cheese, tomato, onion, mayo, mustard, and pickles, though occasionally venturing into the specialty burger we may be running at the time
Peanut butter bacon burgers never got popular?
No peanut butter bacon. I've thought about running something like that as a special, but I've held back.