The Collins Quarter is affectionately named after the trendy district in Melbourne, Australia. You’ve seen a foodie snap a picture here in your lifetime, because the natural lighting and marble table tops make it hard to resist! Locals, celebrities, and tourists alike flock to The Collins Quarter for the quality and experience. Behind every menu item are minute details that cue the cultured patron to an executive chef with an eye for plating and a taste groomed by meticulous training in some of the world’s renowned kitchens. Introducing Executive Chef Nick McNevin.
Q: Where did you start your culinary career?
A: The family BBQ. When I was younger, my mom always said I should be a chef. I worked at my aunt’s small cafe for extra money when I was young. I left hospitality a few times, but was back in the kitchen after two months. It always felt organic. I didn’t know what fine dining was but was drawn towards it. I left my hometown to pursue my career in the nearest biggest city, Brisbane.
Q: When did you break into fine dining?
A: My first real fine dining experience was for an Italian restaurant in Brisbane. It was the typical Hell’s Kitchen experience with pots being thrown, etc. Despite it all, I knew that is where I wanted to be.
I worked in a bunch of other restaurants there until I decided to move to Sydney. I had a list of restaurants that I wanted to get into. A month before I moved down, I asked around, but there was fashion week and other events going on which made every restaurant too busy to sit down with. Finally I ended up at Bondi IceBergs, an upscale Italian restaurant. I was overlooking the beach at the bar at a clubhouse, when I decided to go downstairs to the restaurant and drop my resume off. On the way back to my mom’s house, I got the phone call asking when I can start. I bought a knife kit and started working that day. I was there for about one and a half years.
Q: What was the experience like at a Michelin Star restaurant?
A: I had a brief stint at Pier which was voted best restaurant in Sydney year before I came. It was on par to be a 3 Michelin star restaurant. My mom and aunt knew people that would refer me, but I wanted to get in myself. Working there and at IceBergs gave me the professional training, but it really was my first taste of trying to achieve perfection. They only used the freshest fish and were very methodical with their techniques and quality. It was very intense yet I learned another valuable lesson from the Head Chef about my skills.
“All of the Aussie Kids are my best chefs. The European Michelin trained chefs think they know everything. You all come from small cafes or towns and come here with the right attitude, work ethic, and learn the most. Don’t ever short change yourself. Don’t ever say you can’t do something.” he said.
Q: When did you continue on to the US?
A: One of my mentors took me under his wing. I told him, “I have a game plan to go to New York, Spain, France [to advance my career] and came to him for a plan.” He said, “Okay, but you’re going to hate me.” It paid off. He pushed me and just like any good chef, he always went to just before my breaking point.
My first job was at a 2 Michelin Star restaurant in New York, I was there for 3 or 4 months. In that time, I got out of the stigma of the 2 and 3 Michelin star Gigs. I learned a lot about game birds and dry aging them which I use a lot now. I worked the meat line aging them for 21-28 days. I loved it. I have tried dry aging almost every bird since, but the quality there was so outstanding.
Q: What was one of your most challenging experiences in a kitchen?
A: Working with 3 Michelin star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at his flagship restaurant in Columbus Circle in NYC. It was a 3 Michelin Star restaurant, and I was there for two years. They all wear white and have the traditional chef garb. Every bit of food you got on you made you feel embarrassed. They were very meticulous, even about tiny grains of salt on your work counter. The chefs would pick at every little thing even finger prints on the stainless steel. Everyone wanted to get upstairs with the upper level chefs like executive chefs, and I eventually did. I appreciate it now, because those little touches extend out to your food and your presentation inwardly and out.
Q: How did you come to Savannah?
A: I moved to Charleston to help usher in the relaunch of The Vendue Hotel & Restaurant. After I left the Vendue, I got certified in foraging for mushrooms. I was actually stuck in a swamp foraging for chanterelles when I got a call from Anthony, the owner of The Collins Quarter. We talked over dinner, and I got the concept behind his vision. Us both being from Australia really helped make a connection. Two to three weeks after, I moved down to Savannah to help launch the dinner service. I’ve been here ever since. The increase in fine dining here peaked my interest, and it motivates me to stay here and continue. I want to be a part of the culinary boom.
Q: What is the methodology behind the menu?
A: Just through experience and working at some of the restaurants that I have, you write down ideas. Restaurants I’ve worked at in Australia also have an influence on my cooking. There is a weird European Asian mix because of the variety of people and backgrounds. I don’t like being pigeon holed to one style of cuisine, and I like using multiple styles from all over the world. Our ingredients are local and farm-to-table. The garnishes like the edible flowers used in most dishes come from my garden at home where I also have bees that I’m waiting to harvest honey from.
When creating I think of flavor, texture, visual appearance, and what I would like. How can I put a fun twist on what the local environment would like? For example, I did a take on a Southern classic, Succotash. Corn purée, fried corn meal, sweet grass, mussels, sous-vide (Where you brine the meat and veggies first and put it in vacuum sealed bag in a heated water bath. It cooks long and slow making it extremely tender.), took chicken stock and reduced it down making a bbq glaze, butter beans, black eyed peas, and spicy tomato purée.
Q: How do you adjust to the taste of the south coming from culinary capitals of the world?
A: The artistic culture of the city encourages an openness here to new ideas. I’ve received a lot of push back from those who may not understand why I did something a certain way. There’s two sides: one that understands and appreciates trying something different or didn’t know about and the other side just doesn’t want to understand and that’s okay. I adjust fancy ingredients like Sea Urchin to fit the palate of the area and make it easier for people to try.
Q: You started the dinner service in October. What’s the most popular dish for dinner?
A: Beet Salad with roasted beets, shaved beets, grapefruit, lemon ricotta, and spicy granola ginger mango.
The Duck Main Course with duck breast, apple wasabi purée, toyko turnips, and bok choy pickled blueberries.
People who say they don’t like beets eat the salad and really love it! We’ve heard many people say that the duck is the best they’ve had even though they don’t like beets.
Q: What are your thoughts when you reflect where you thought you would be and where you are now?
A: In Sydney and NYC, you just wanted to be better for the sake of being better. We all challenge each other to be better in the restaurant industry. I miss the experience that you get as a chef coming up when people will constantly challenge you. Transitioning from a cook to a chef is rewarding. At first it doesn’t make sense, but you push other people and build them up and see how far they come. Through your experiences helping them, it helps you relive your years coming up and gives you that feeling again. The one thing I realize is that John Georges taught me how to cook and cook well. Paul Liebrandt, 2 Michelin star chef at Corton and The Elm, taught me how to be playful and experimental and put things on their head. I recommend his documentary called A Matter of Taste. It explains the chefs I’ve worked with and the mindset we have.
It was a privilege interviewing Chef Nick McNevin. His love for cooking is infectious, and his passion is evident all facets of The Collins Quarter menu. He is one of many extraordinary chefs in Savannah that are ushering in the new wave of quality ingredients, techniques, and dining experience. Be sure to stop by The Collins Quarter for their new dinner menu, and tag us in your foodie pictures @thefoodiefeaturesavannah!
Did you like this Q & A? Let us know in the comments below or clicking Facebook Like button above!