"It's not what you got but what you give, not the life you choose but the life you live.” When Marc Collins signs his email with this spin on lyrics from the band Tesla, he’s sharing his personal truth. It’s not enough that he co-owns two lauded Charleston restaurants, Circa 1886 and Kitchen 208, or that he has earned a reputation as one of the state’s most masterful chefs. It’s the way he chooses to give back to the community that defines his life as a chef and a human being.
Despite being one of Charleston’s busiest chefs, Collins had a burgeoning desire to help establish his community as a significant culinary presence. In 2009, he helped co-found the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, an epic move that propelled Charleston food culture into the national spotlight. His kitchen aesthetics and commitment to South Carolina’s food heritage and the chefs that honor it through their work helped earn him the title of South Carolina Chef Ambassador 2019. As part of an initiative begun by former Gov. Nikki Haley, each year chefs from across the state are selected to promote South Carolina's culinary heritage and local food culture through cooking demonstrations, guest appearances and educational programs.
Collins took those first developmental steps toward chef-dom at age 16 as an apprentice on a yacht. Things took a serious turn when he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts, with subsequent kitchen gigs beginning in his hometown of Erie. Being named first chef of the AAA four-diamond restaurant in San Antonio's Fairmont Hotel established Collins as an expert in the kitchen, and it wasn’t long before he was invited to helm the kitchen of Circa 1886 as executive chef.
In this Q&A, Collins provides further insights on his career path and dedication to South Carolina’s rich culinary traditions:
What first sparked your interest in a culinary career?
“I wanted to be a fighter pilot for such a long time, but I found out that not having 20/20 vision would keep me out of the Air Force. After that, I decided to look at other options and fell into culinary arts on a whim. While attending vocational high school for commercial foods, I was told by the instructor that I had a natural ability when it came to the kitchen. I had no other plans and decided to stick with it. I soon fell in love with the artistic approach to food and the ability to bring comfort and happiness to others and have been hooked ever since.”
What makes being a chef in South Carolina so appealing?
“I have a historical approach to my cooking, and South Carolina has been an amazing bounty of history and culture in regards to food. It continues to inspire me on a daily basis. Early in my career, I recall people talking about the rich culinary history of New Orleans and Louisiana, but I think that pales in comparison to the intricate past and influences the great state of South Carolina has had, from early Native Americans to the European and African influences to today and the way the South conjures up so many humble and satisfying dishes.”
Which South Carolina products are "musts" in your kitchen?
“We are so blessed to have an abundance of producers right outside our back door. Grits, Carolina Gold rice, shrimp, wreckfish, clams, heirloom and green tomatoes, hydroponic lettuces, collard greens, mushrooms, field peas, sea salt, honey, dairy and cheeses – heck, there are too many to list that I have to have in my kitchen daily.”
What dish best represents your creativity and culinary style?
“Wreck bass with bacon crust, flageolet beans, sun-dried tomatoes, celery, onion marmalade and crab hush puppy. This dish offers a great local fish, bacon, sun-dried tomatoes and a true Southern staple, flageolet beans (which give a nod to the French and Italian influences here), onion marmalade and crab hush puppies (both great odes to the South), all combined to take simple, straightforward ingredients and elevate them for today’s discerning diners.”
As a Chef Ambassador for South Carolina, what ideals do you hope to share with the dining public and why?
“The word is already out that South Carolina is a dining destination, but I would love to bring to others the story of these great dishes, their ingredients and how we got to where we are today from those humble beginnings. The food history here is truly amazing and that history needs to be spread so that when people come and eat here, we don’t just fill their belly but feed their culinary soul.”