I met up with Master Sommelier Craig Collins as he took a breath from a schedule that appears overwhelming to a mere mortal. In the process of juggling regular duties as Beverage Director for ELM Restaurant Group's three existing restaurants, he came from staff training for Italic, the new Italian concept whose opening was only two weeks away. These alongside his two-week-old activities as a new father, and all taking place during the excessive busyness of SXSW. Without his head spinning, he took time to drink a beer and share some of his experiences and philosophies on Easy Tiger's hopping deck.
from italy to austin
Craig shared how he fell in love with wine while studying abroad during college in Tuscany, where he became enamored especially with Italian wines. It was also where he solidified his friendship with Chef Andrew Curren, now owner of ELM. Italy's food and wine culture made a deep impression on him. "Family and food are the most important things there, and family is not just family, but also friends, with closeness and togetherness. I think that's great." The roommates determined to follow their passions of wine and cooking, and often discussed opening a restaurant, with Craig front of house, and Andrew in the back. But soon finding himself working for an Italian-specialized wine importer in Austin, Collins thought he was set. "I had never worked in a restaurant. I thought I was an importer for life."
renowned for service
"Ten years ago, there were no Sommeliers in Austin, and now there are fifteen to twenty beverage-focused programs," he said. Austin is growing and changing, and part of this scenario is an acclaimed, chef-owner and beverage-driven restaurant service culture. Craig is one of a few original Austin Sommeliers that studied together and have remained instrumental in establishing the improvement and expansion. The results include a broader range of fine dining establishments, an emphasis on beverages, and attraction of national attention. Advancement and changes have also come for Collins. A year after he passed the Master Sommelier exam in 2011, the documentary SOMM contributed to Sommelier becoming a mainstream and highly-sought position, particularly in a growth market like Austin, further increasing the local talent pool. Along the way, Curren convinced his old friend to join ELM to open a French themed restaurant, ARRO.
Four restaurants later, with more in the works, ELM as well as Austin is booming. Collins and others have ensured that careful attention is directed toward developing the next generation to carry on highest levels of service. He is cautious, though, about the flavor of hype given his profession. "I don’t want to bring back the pretension to the position, or for it to sound like it is a rock star life. Everyone knows now the work it takes to become a Master, but the work after you pass? It’s more. Instead of focusing on a singular goal, you have many focuses, and it's harder. People have expectations." To be sure to keep up with expectations, he maintains an impressive standard for communication. "I try to respond in twelve hours, not twenty-four. That is the expectation I set for myself." I can attest. Unknowingly, I emailed Collins about meeting on the day his son was being born. Even then, he replied by the next morning.
As Craig described preparing meals and stocking his refrigerator for his wife while she gets used to life with their baby, (a menu of foods that she can eat one-handed) it was clear that delivering satisfying service is his way of life. Roles as family man, restaurant group manager, and industry leader do not prevent him from making even random strangers like me to feel well cared for. Summing up how he manages a stacked and constantly changing schedule so completely and pleasantly, he said. "That is professional service."