Up and Coming Chefs Michael Collins

Up and Coming Chefs Michael Collins: I love to visit and eat at chef operated restaurants.  I can count on getting the most inspired andauthentic food and service. This month I took a short trip to Hiawassee and met Chef Michael Collins at Michaelee’s Chocolate Caffe.  Wow! Another CIA Trained Chef here in the North Georgia Mountains.  Chef Michael Collins brings a wealth of experience to Michaelee’s Chocolate Caffe, in Hiawassee, Georgia.

Up and Coming Chefs Michael Collins

I love to visit and eat at chef operated restaurants.  I can count on getting the most inspired andauthentic food and service. This month I took a short trip to Hiawassee and met Chef Michael Collins at Michaelee’s Chocolate Caffe. The Caffe features fresh Mediterranean style dining with a definite Italian bent.  During this visit I sat down with Chef Collins to learn more about what brought him to North Georgia. Chef Collins said he came to Georgia for a short visit nearly 29 years ago and never left.

His interest in food started as a child. He grew up in Bridgeport Connecticut, an area with many ethnic families, so he was exposed to many types of food – and his favorite was Italian. He was the youngest of 6 children, and spent much of his early years hanging-out in the kitchen with his mother and older sisters.  By the time he went to high school, he selected a technical school that offered an exploratory culinary program.  That experience solidified his interest in food.

While in school he worked for an upscale kosher catering firm and learned many new recipes and how to do ice carving.  From high school he was accepted at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park New York. Upon completing culinary school he took a short trip to Georgia to visit one of his sisters. He fell in love with the area and has been here ever since.

His first job was at a TGI Fridays in Atlanta’s Buckhead area.  After several years he was selected to help create and develop new menu items and recipes for the chain. Not long later he was recruited by Innovative Restaurant Concepts in Atlanta.  They owned a number of large restaurants including Ray’s on the River and they were developing a new brand named Rio Bravo Cantinas. Chef Collins worked as a kitchen manager but quickly worked up to become the company’s Commissary General Manager.  He moved further up the corporate ladder to serve as area and regional manager. Before leaving the company he was responsible for 7 restaurants each with multi-million dollar revenues.

The corporate food world is all about numbers, and while he had huge responsibility, he was no longer a chef.  He left the company in 2000, thinking it would be a short sabbatical.  At this time his wife, Lisa, was running an international adoption agency, so he joined her firm and was able to travel the world.  This lasted for 4 years, but then he got the itch to get back to his first love, the kitchen.

With Lisa by his side their first private venture was “A Touch of Class,” a gourmet cooking shop in Helen.  He demonstrated how to use prepared sauces and other products and turn them into unique and creative meals. The shop enjoyed success, so they opened a second one in Hiawassee. A developer friend mentioned that he was preparing to construct a row of new store fronts in Hiawassee and he invited Chef Collins and Lisa to think about a new shop. After much thought they decided on a small coffee shop, a limited menu with a few baked goods. Michaelee’s Chocolate Caffe was the result, offering full lunch and dinner menus 6 days a week as well as baked goods, chocolates, gourmet products, and a selection of beers and wine.

I asked Chef Collins does he regret opening their own “full service” restaurant.  He said “absolutely not.  I enjoy it, I love it, and hands down it is better than the corporate world.” He and Lisa chose to raise their daughter in a small town. All three of them love the mountains and its people.  They now have a loyal following.  Many of their regulars come from Murphy, Blairsville, Helen and Clayton to enjoy the Caffee’s wonderful foods and exquisite service.  He said Lisa has full charge of the front of the house. She hires staff, ensures prompt courteous service, and selects the wine and beer. She visits every table to ensure each diner is satisfied.

Chef Collins’ brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to our mountains. He personally prepares almost every item available at the Caffe, including lunch sandwiches, entrees, desserts, baked goods and their wonderful fudge. I asked, okay “what’s behind the name Michaelee’s?  He explained that it is actually a contraction of their two names.  Lisa is known as Lee by their family.

The restaurant is adorable.  It has hardwood floors, huge windows looking out at the mountains and a cheerful outdoor seasonal veranda.

Chef Collins’ dinner menu is extensive and includes such homemade creations as Jumbo Florentine Raviolis, Steak Au Poivre and Veal Saltimbocca. Lisa’s effort to ensure beautiful table service and wonderful presentation will make you forget you are not in a big city.  While I am partial to Chef Collins Italian selections, Gayle is a serious fan of his several decadent chocolate creations sitting in the dessert case. Okay, Chef Collins, maybe we need a Michaelee’s Chocolate Caffe in Clayton so I don’t have to drive as far.

Michaelee’s Chocolate Caffe, 142 N. Main Street, Hiawassee, GA 30546, Phone (706) 896-2752 Cafe@Michaelees.com, www.michaelees.com

David  Darugh is co-owner of the Beechwood Inn, located in Clayton, GA. www.beechwoodinn.ws.  The inn includes a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence Restaurant that features fresh and local products.  David was the General Counsel of the American Wine Society from 1990 to 2001.