"I can't paint you a picture. I can't play the guitar. But I can run a really, really great restaurant." For Grassroots Kitchen and Tap owner and chef Chris Collins, the restaurant industry is more than a business, it's a family affair. As son of Wally Collins -- the man behind Wally's American Pub 'n Grill -- Collins grew up working in his father's restaurants, learning at an early age about the value of creating a friendly, neighborhood restaurant.
So it's really no surprise that when an opportunity to open a restaurant in the same Gainey Ranch neighborhood as one of his father's restaurants popped up, Collins jumped. The first location of Grassroots Kitchen & Tap has been open for just over two years. Things have been going so well that Collins even opened a second location in Central Phoenix earlier this year.
"Everything I've done since I was 12 was to get me into restaurants," he says.
Collins, who keeps a notebook full of potential restaurant concepts and ideas, says he'd had the idea for Grassroots for "a very long time" before he was ever approached about a space. At the time, the concept was to do Northern California-type food and offer the same type of personal, friendly service that his dad's restaurant have become known for.
When it came to actually writing the menu for the North Scottsdale restaurant, the cuisine veered south -- meaning that the Grassroots you know today ended up being more "New American with Southern influence," in the chef's own words.
And you can see that Southern presence in items like the Carolina baby back ribs and Southern shrimp and grits, a dish that incorporates Collins' popular take on creamy Southern grits. Though the side dish didn't catch on right away, Collins says it's now become one of the restaurant's most loved dishes -- but that didn't happen on its own.
"We lagniappe-d grits on every table for three plus weeks," Collins recalls.
A "lagniappe" is a small gift given to a customer by a merchant at the time of purchase, like a 13th doughnut given to someone who orders a dozen. The word comes from a Quechuan word that was adapted by the Lousiana French and is one of the many things Collins picked up from working in New Orleans for Hillstone Restaurant Group. The company owns a number of restaurant concepts, including Hillstone, Houston's, and Bandera.
"Wally's and Houston's molded me," says Collins.
At Grassroots, the chef says he aims to blend the friendly, neighborhood feel of Wally's with the efficiency and uncompromising attention to detail of Hillstone Group restaurants. And considering that he's still involved with both Wally's locations and just had a baby boy -- named Christopher ("Topher") in case you were wondering -- that's no easy feat.
As for that second location, Collins says he's getting ready to unveil a few changes. For starters, they'll be starting construction on a new patio this month and have plans to start differentiating the menu a little more from that of the original location. Look forward to dishes like swordfish and "Twisted Scallops," two dishes that Collins says might appeal to the more adventurous dining scene in Central Phoenix.
The changes and the patio won't be ready until May, Collins says, but the delay isn't something the new father sees as a bad thing -- the hotter months will mean things will slow down enough for him to spend more time at home.
"I can't wait for summer to come," Collins says.
The best thing about being in the restaurant business: Every day is a new day with its own challenges and rewards. I never have the same routine or feel like there is monotony in my life. Whether it's with my team members or a guest, I get to experience someone great on a daily basis.
The worst thing about being in the restaurant business: My son is two weeks old and I would like to spend more time with him. March is a very busy time for the restaurants, and I'm blessed to have such an amazing and understanding wife.
Describe Grassroots in five words: Locally owned, genuine food, hospitality.
What drew you to the industry?: As a young man, watching my father's passion for his restaurants inspired me to devote myself to this craft.
Your earliest food memory: My father would work many late nights, and sometimes the only quality time my brothers and I got to enjoy with him outside the restaurants would be a late-night snack. We would hear Wally come home and we'd get out of bed to see what he brought that night. My fondest memories are of great cheeses and cured meats. I named my charcuterie plate "Dad's Grocery Bag" in honor of this special food memory.
Your favorite item on the menu and why: Shrimp and grits. Give me some of the best grits west of the Mississippi with our spicy tasso-ham relish and grilled white shrimp and I'm in heaven. My little secret is to add a little dash of local honey on the grilled toast to create a great balance of savory, sweet, and heat.
Your personal mantra: Enjoy what you do or don't do it at all.
Your culinary guilty pleasure: I really love Chinese food. One day I hope to learn how to properly cook fiery Szechuan-style cuisine.
If you had to eat three things for the rest of your life, what would they be?: Desert Jade Peking pork, my mother's carbonara, and La Grande Orange sea salt chocolate cookie.
Most memorable meal to date: May 22, 2013, in Paris on my honeymoon with my beautiful wife, Melissa Doyle Collins. We checked into the hotel, and I immediately asked the concierge to make a reservation for us at the famed Le Jules Verne, at the top of the Eiffel Tower. He looked at me like I was crazy and informed me it took months in advance to get a reservation. Nonetheless, he said he would try, and on the way up to our room, my wife teased me for even asking. Five minutes later, the phone rang and the concierge informed us there had been a last-minute cancelation and that we were booked. I will never forget the decadent food, bottles of champagne, and looking at my newlywed wife with the River Seine in the background. Absolutely a perfect evening.
Your go-to meal: Medium-rare burger, extra pickles, French fries, and a Coke. Classic, simple, and when done right can be as satisfying as any high-priced meal.
I wish Phoenix had more: Restaurants within walking distance of each other. Nothing beats visiting a city like Chicago and spending an entire evening walking the neighborhoods and trying a dish at every kitchen.
One local chef/restaurant you admire and why: Chris Bianco. When I was home visiting from college, I went to Pizzeria Bianco and I watched Chris hand-make every single pizza that night. At first, I was amazed that the owner was the one actually working in front of the hot oven, but he would forever change my approach to the people who help me when I saw him go up to each cook that night, thank them, and give them a hug before he went home. That one demonstration of Chris' appreciation and respect for his staff has been with me in every restaurant that I have managed since then.
One national/international restaurant you want to hit this year: I am very fond of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's J&G Steakhouse at The Phoenician and look forward to visiting his flagship, Jean Georges, in May when my father, brothers, and I travel to NYC for a city restaurant tour.
The biggest lesson you learned from working at your dad's restaurants: "Keep it simple, stupid." My dad has always guided me to make the operations of our restaurants as straightforward and simple as possible.
The biggest lesson you've learned since opening your own restaurant: To take everything in stride. Don't get too high on the high or too low on the lows. Every day is a new day, and you have to keep you mind open.
If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?: I always tease my wife that one day I could sell the restaurants and become the swim coach at Brophy Prep, a team I swam for when I was younger.
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Your perceptions of the neighborhood around Grassroots at Town & Country so far: Our neighbors are all great. Everyone has shown such wonderful support, and it feels like the entire city is pulling for Town & Country to continue its revival.
Describe your perfect last meal on Earth: I hope it will be Thanksgiving at the Collins household. Growing up in a restaurant family, we all had to work around the holidays, but Thanksgiving was always the holiday at our house that everyone had to be at. Wally cooks for days and the entire family comes together around the kitchen table.
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: Perry Rea - Queen Creek Olive Mill Adam Brown - Noca Steve Kraus - Press Coffee Roastery Jason Raducha and Claudio Urciuoli - Noble Bread Sasha Raj - 24 Carrots Nick LaRosa - Nook Joey Maggiore - Cuttlefish Country Velador - Super Chunk Sweets and Treats James Porter - Petite Maison Cullen Campbell - Crudo Mel Mecinas - Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North Meagan Micozzi - Scarletta Bakes Tyson Holzheimer and Joe Strelnik - Snooze, an A.M. Eatery Paul McCabe - T. Cook's at the Royal Palms Eugenia Theodosopoulos - Essence Bakery Cafe Eddie Hantas - Hummus Xpress Jay Bogsinke - St. Francis Dustin Christofolo - Quiessence Blaise and DJ Aki - The Sushi Room Sacha Levine - Rancho Pinot and FnB Andrew Nienke - Cafe Monarch Kevin Lentz - French Grocery Aurore de Beauduy - Vogue Bistro Justin Olsen - Bink's Midtown Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz - Republica Empanada Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay