Looking back on his youth, Sean Collins remembers being the most comfortable when in the kitchen. But ironically, he never considered turning his love of food into a career. An interest in architecture lead him to enrol in an engineering program, but he quickly realized it wasn’t for him. “I just couldn’t get excited about it,” he recalls. “I had been cooking for myself at home and realized it was something I loved doing. So, I decided to leave college and start working in kitchens.”
Collins spent four years gaining kitchen experience before landing at Ontario’s Stratford Chefs School. After completing his formal training, he found a job as head chef at Pazzo before accepting an offer from Tim Larsen to help open a new Stratford eatery — Mercer Hall. This decision would prove instrumental in determining his career path. During his three-year tenure at Mercer Hall, Collins worked alongside the team that would ultimately become his business partners — including Jessie Votary, Steve Walters, Gen Zinger, Adam Robinson, Jon Naiman and Tyson Everitt.
In the face of an ownership change, and after being denied the opportunity to purchase the restaurant themselves, the Mercer Hall team decided to venture out on its own. “We enjoyed working together and felt like we had good chemistry, which is one of the most important things in this industry,” Collins explains.
The end result — The Red Rabbit — has a unique ownership structure, with each of the resto’s core staff owning a stake in the business. The 60-seat restaurant is named for a figurine from one of Votary’s former restaurants and symbolizes co-operation between the front- and back-of-house, says Collins. The goal of this joint venture, which is open for lunch and dinner, is to create a comfortable community restaurant the locals could get behind. Here, Collins and his team serve up casual Canadian fare, made with local ingredients, including shareable items such as rabbit and leek pie served with gherkin relish ($16.50); BBQ celery root served with Kansas-style sauce, collards, kale and mustard ($12); and roasted Brussels sprouts with pulled duck confit, pecans and five spice ($12).
Now in its first winter, The Red Rabbit appears to be finding its groove. “We have been full since we opened,” boasts the 33-year-old. “It’s been overwhelming and heartwarming.”
Beyond business goals, the restaurant and the team behind it have helped Collins achieve his personal goals. “The fact that I love going to work every day is probably the thing I’m most proud of,” Collins shares. “This restaurant would not be what it is without the crew we have. We love working together and we love coming to work — to me, that’s everything.”
Less than a year after the launch, Collins and the team are already exploring opportunities for expansion. “We have a tremendous amount of talent in this restaurant and at some point we would like to open up a second place,” he explains. “We don’t really have a timeline on it; it’s more about waiting for the right thing to come up.”
Volume 49, Number 1