In the Kitchen With: Michael Robbins of AnnaLena Restaurant

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A pragmatist at heart, Vancouver-born Michael Robbins always knew he wasn’t interested in pursuing cooking through traditional means — he had no interest in getting a post-secondary education and preferred instead to refine his skills on the job. “[As] a chef, you’re paid to create things and be part of a team,” Robbins says. “You can be in the career from day one and grow continually instead of going back and forth between school and your job.”

Robbins began his culinary career early at age 17, working part-time at a Vancouver Earls. There, he met his future AnnaLena manager, Jeff Parr. The pair started as dishwashers, working their way up into the kitchen before moving to the Vancouver steak-and-seafood chain Joe Fortes. Following a two-year stint there, the pair went their separate ways. Robbins travelled to Australia, where he spent a year working at various restaurants, gaining valuable international culinary experience.

After returning to Vancouver, Robbins joined the Glowbal Restaurant Group and as the company grew rapidly from a handful of diners to a large collection of fine-dining restaurants, Robbins also grew — from chef de cuisine to executive chef. But he craved more creative freedom than the chain afforded him. “It felt very corporate,” he says. “Although I was an executive, it was micro-managed.”

As executive chef at the Oakwood Canadian Bistro in Kitsilano, B.C., Robbins was given the freedom he craved. Entrusted with designing the fledgling restaurant’s brand image, Robbins got the opportunity to be a restaurateur without the economic burden. “That was a big turning point for me,” he explains. “Treating a restaurant as if it were my own, but with someone else’s money, was beneficial for both sides. ”

After rising to partner at Oakwood, Robbins was eager to operate his own restaurant and in March 2015, he opened AnnaLena. Co-managed by Jeff Parr and Kevin Brownlee, AnnaLena has drawn both crowds and critical acclaim. “We expected to do well, but not as well as we did right out of the gate,” Robbins says.

The 65-seat restaurant’s name is a portmanteau of Robbins’ two grandmothers — Anna and Lena. Throughout the interior, dark wood grains and blacks are juxtaposed with clean, stark whites. The contrast, he explains, represents the opposing personalities of his grandmothers. Decorative pieces consist of ’90s memorabilia, such as Gameboys and Lego pieces, representing Robbins’ childhood persona.

The young restaurateur says his hands-on approach to owning a restaurant is what he loves most about entrepreneurship. “Focus on doing one thing well and it will open the door to other opportunities,” Robbins says. “I cooked for 15 years and now I’m at a point where I can design, conceptualize and brand a restaurant myself.”

Robbins has no plans to expand beyond his one location anytime soon. “I want to maximize the potential of [AnnaLena]. I’d rather keep reinventing it and refining the concept and really nailing it,” he shared.

Volume 49, Number 7
Written By Eric Alister

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