spilling the beans
Born to Cook
Career in cuisine seasoned with heritage and grit
It’s a warm afternoon in Rachel Collins’s cozy cottage in Union Pier, MI. Once her two enthusiastic dogs, Maise and Bella, settle down, we exchange foods (more about this later) and talk cooking.
Collins’s Italian family was her culinary school. As a child, she was entrenched in cooking and serving in her grandparents’ restaurant, Martinetti’s, in Crystal Lake, IL. Going to cooking school never entered her mind. Smiling widely, she credits just being around her family for giving her the best training imaginable. Rather than being overwhelmed by a restaurant kitchen, she was drawn to it.
“The sights, the sounds, the smells, the how things worked in the kitchen, what it all looked like, that was all just second nature to me.”
From an early age, fascinated with what she perceived as cooking’s alchemy, Collins was an avid cookbook reader and uninhibited recipe changer. She fondly recalls foraging spring dandelion leaves for salad and for her favorite hen of the woods fall mushrooms. She swoons remembering her grandfather’s homegrown tomatoes. And she notes that the occasional “squirrel cacciatore” was the only dish on which her family used red sauce, other than over polenta.
Plus, there were monthly food-focused family visits. Everyone knew their role. Upon arriving at the relative’s home, the men worked in the vegetable garden while the women made and stockpiled pasta all day. “Hands would just fly making tortellini. It would look like machine-made product,” she recalls. Cooking was in her DNA.
After college, Collins and her mother, Carolyn, launched Collins Caviar in the basement of her Crystal Lake home. Working with Lake Michigan fishermen, they built a national business that 33 years later Collins runs. Selling that caviar placed her in Chicago’s best restaurant kitchens, meeting their chefs and managers. Observing the structure of the brigade de cuisine and the prowess and stamina it took to be a chef, Collins decided she wanted to spend more time in those kitchens, cooking. When chefs from restaurants like the 95th, Shaw’s and Gordon invited her to help them prepare large catering orders, she absorbed each opportunity.
Inspired by the experience, she took a hiatus from the caviar business in 1994, migrating to southwest Michigan’s Harbor County to cook full time. The first year she immersed herself, managing the garde manger station of friend Chef Jenny Drilon’s former restaurant in Lakeside, MI. Then she spent two more years cooking at various area venues and assisting another friend, Chef Art Smith. She notes that working with him in Chicago and southwest Michigan was “where I got down my catering chops.”
But family called. She returned to Chicago to manage the caviar business in 1997. In 2005 she relocated it from its high-rent Chicago location to Michigan City, IN. The move allowed her to return full time to her Harbor County home, where she catered when possible and cooked with and for lucky friends. Collins’s move of the caviar company’s operations to New York (working with a co-packer and drop-shipper) in 2012 allowed her to work virtually. And cook more.
Collins describes her self-taught approach as “definitely based on classical French technique: simple, straight ahead, everything from scratch, starting with stock.” Laughingly calling it an “Abbondanza!” style, she says she focuses on deliciousness in dishes that are generous, approachable and recognizable. She still reads cookbooks, takes inspiration from what is fresh and available and experiments with recipes, filling binders with notes on successes.
Recipe documentation for consistency supports Collins’s next pursuit: Flagship Specialty Foods & Fish Market in Lakeside. A testament to her persistence, she has held onto and reshaped her vision for the shop since she first discovered Harbor Country. It was almost within her grasp twice. Finally, the stars aligned. She secured a commercial kitchen and saw an improved local economy and more local support for independent producers and fisheries. Now she cooks her signature dishes for carryout and stocks carefully sourced and foraged foods and fish. Passionate about “getting it right” and having well-pleased customers, Collins’s combination of heritage and grit (plus those binders) promise lots of “Abbondanza!”
That food exchange? I gave her chive seeds, suggesting them for topping homemade dinner rolls or salad. She gave me Midwest capers (pickled milkweed blossoms). Yum!
Flagship Specialty Foods & Fish Market
14939 Red Arrow Hwy
Try out Rachel Collin's Great Lakes Smoked Whitefish Brandade recipe here!