Though he technically serves as owner and executive chef, Michael Robbins can perhaps best be described as AnnaLena’s creative director.
The Vancouver-born chef, who previously held positions at Glowbal, Coast, Sanafir, and the Oakwood Canadian Bistro, has launched the restaurant into nothing short of superstardom since opening its doors in Kitsilano last year. His mind-bending, Pacific Northwest–inspired dishes have earned praise from casual diners and critics alike, with Robbins and AnnaLena racking up an impressive set of accolades that includes being voted best new restaurant in the Georgia Straight’s 20th annual Best of Vancouver survey; a spot on enRoute magazine’s list of the top 10 new restaurants of 2015; and now, being named best chef and best new restaurant in our 2016 Golden Plates.
“I don’t like just cooking food,” he says during an interview with the Straight in the minimalist, black-and-white room, where a hip-hop–heavy playlist of Drake, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar reverberates ahead of dinner service. “I like the whole thing: I like the branding, the conceptualizing. I like designing the restaurant.”
Anyone who’s familiar with Robbins outside the kitchen should recognize the thoughtful touches he’s introduced to AnnaLena. The self-described sneakerhead is very much a product of his East Vancouver roots, and though the restaurant’s name is a tribute to his two grandmothers, he’s taken care to imbue his own urban aesthetic into almost every crevice of the space.
A recently installed pop-art unit houses rows of recast Gameboys and Stormtrooper figurines at the eatery’s entrance; playful Tetris-block motifs add visual interest to a moody, wood-panelled bar; an espresso-stained bookshelf showcases Lego art built by Robbins, Toy Story–themed Bearbricks, and a selection of coffee-table art books that feature works by Douglas Coupland, Banksy, and KAWS, among others. Some of these are nostalgic relics from Robbins’s childhood, but they’re mostly just things that he likes.
“I designed the room based on the idea of, like, going to your grandma’s house as a kid and bringing all your toys,” he explains. “And because the room is that way, then you challenge yourself in the kitchen to be creative to match the room.”
For Robbins, the plate is the canvas, spoons and palette knives the brushes. Swirling strokes of earthy sunchoke, jade-green watercress, and deep-violet eggplant purées act as paints, forming exquisite foundations for tender, flavour-packed proteins like wagyu short rib, melt-in-your-mouth bison tartare, and seared sablefish.
Desserts receive equally pleasing treatments: delicately crumpled slices of caramel-truffle apple are sprinkled with thyme and placed artfully atop blondie squares; creamy panna cotta is layered with banana mousse and crunchy, house-made cereal. The result is a menu that’s as photogenic as it is tasty, each dish crafted with an attention to detail and negative space that would make any graphic artist weep with glee.
But as successful as he’s been in carrying out his vision, Robbins is not a one-man show. With general manager Jeff Parr and bar manager Kevin Brownlee, the chef constantly drives the imaginations of those in his kitchen by swapping out menu items that have run their course. A visit to AnnaLena today will likely be drastically different, at least sustenancewise, from one that takes place three months from now.
“I honestly believe that if you really enjoy and care about what you’re cooking, anyone that doesn’t care about it can’t make it taste as good as you do,” stresses Robbins. “So we allow that creative freedom and we challenge ourselves to keep cooks inspired so that they enjoy coming to work. Then the food’s better.”
Vigilant diners and social-media sleuths may notice another envelope-pushing facet emerging from AnnaLena’s kitchen. One word is emblazoned proudly in white-on-red lettering across each chef’s chest, the same phrase inscribed on snapbacks slung nonchalantly onto heads: Cooklife. The branded gear, designed by the fashion-conscious Robbins and sous-chef Mark Singson, allows the back-of-house crew to forgo ill-fitting chef jackets and pants, though it goes deeper than a way of dressing.
“You really feel more like you’re a part of something when your kitchen is branded almost separate from your restaurant,” says Robbins. “So we’re creating this family of like minds.”
Unsurprisingly, a perfectionist of Robbins’s pedigree is his own toughest critic, and the chef considers Cooklife—whatever it is—a work in progress, like AnnaLena. “I would love to come in to work someday and think, ‘Man, this is absolutely perfect,’ ” he adds. “That’s my goal for next year: to just impress myself, for once.”
In the meantime, it’s safe to say that he’s affected plenty of others.