Emma Zimmerman, the Chef
Cutting boards clang against metal worktables. Steam wafts off sizzling pans and the smell of steak sandwiches across the room. The clamor of voices and whizz of knives and bread marks the beginning of A Lunch. Over 100 orders today. Despite the heat, junior Emma Zimmerman doesn’t break a sweat. She slides on her gloves and gets to work.
As the head chef of Hillsborough’s culinary program, Zimmerman knows her way around the kitchen. Her culinary path began at age 5, making breakfast with her grandmother. “She always taught me how to cook, just making cafe con leche, eggs and toast, and I started liking it,” Zimmerman said. Soon she was making Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with her mother and grandmother, expanding her skills with each new meal.
The Head Chef
Zimmerman oversees 45 culinary students between two periods. The culinary program manages the Terrier Café, a restaurant run out of culinary teacher and chef Dalton Dunn’s room on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. The first part of the week is used as meal prep, creating dishes from French onion soup to pumpkin pie to Cuban sandwiches. The program also oversees banquets for the alumni and sports teams. “Being head chef in our culinary program means that I’m not just thinking of myself, but the culinary program as a whole,” Zimmerman said. “I’m thinking of next year and how to help students if I’m not there.”
Dunn, known to his students simply as “Chef,” has seen Zimmerman’s excitement for the art since her freshman year. “I remember she came in enthusiastic during her first open house, and from then on, she’s just taken off like a moth to flame,” Dunn said. He’s seen her quick progression as she’s mastered several skills differentiating a chef from a cook, so much so that Zimmerman’s boss at King of the Coop calls Dunn to see if Zimmerman can work more. “I’m here early, she’s here with me, and if I need help, she’s there,” Dunn said. “She’s pushed me to be better, and I’ve tried to push her to be better.”
Students hope to graduate with a manager certification, one that Zimmerman has already achieved. With each certification, more money cycles back into the program. However, students also benefit from the certification, which tests cooking and management knowledge. “If you want to get a culinary job, you have to have something under your belt that shows you know what you’re doing and you’re not just an inexperienced kid,” Zimmerman said.
At first, creating a balanced schedule was difficult for Zimmerman. As a Dancerette, she spends most of her week practicing with the team. Afterwards, she dances with her studio at Tampa Gym and Dance, and on weekends, she works 12-hour shifts at King of the Coop. While her plate is filled with activities, Zimmerman finds the routine to be relaxing now. “I found my outlets, so now work isn’t stressful for me.”
Zimmerman began working at the fried chicken establishment in the summer but has had to decrease her hours since school started. However, she isn’t upset over the reduction because although the pay is helpful, her job at King of the Coop has always been about gaining experience. “The owner went to Le Cordon Bleu (a culinary school), so it’s really interesting to see how his oil drenches are more than just oil, and he makes fried chicken more than just fried chicken.”
Beyond Minimum Wage
While she respects and understands the need for lower positions, Zimmerman has higher hopes for her role in the culinary world beyond growing her brand for the next 10 years. “I want to have my own restaurant, just like every chef’s dream, but mine would be called Zimm’s Kitchen,” Zimmerman said.
However, her more immediate goal is to go to culinary school. “I have been looking into culinary schools such as the ICC, which is the International Culinary Center in New York City and we’ve been conversing,” Zimmerman said. She applied this year as a junior and is not discouraged by the difficult acceptance rate. “I want to shoot for the best and if I don’t get it this year, it won’t stop me from trying again next year.”
Since the start of high school and her position as head chef, Zimmerman has faced numerous challenges, including sexism and harsh realities. “I’ve learned that you can throw your whole heart out there and it doesn’t matter because there are still people out there that want you to fail,” she said. Zimmerman has noticed that the industry has been more male-dominated, despite female stereotypes.
While some around her have said that a woman should not be in charge, Zimmerman believes that she has earned her position. “Even though there are people that tell you all the time that you’re just a girl and won’t listen to you, its OK because not everybody is meant to be your friend, so you have to stop complaining and roll with the punches,” Zimmerman said.
While she understands the realities of the profession, Zimmerman is not deterred. “Going in the food industry is going to be very competitive, but I’m ready for the fight,” she said. For now, though, Zimmerman is content with steak sandwiches and fried chicken. It’s only a matter of thyme before Zimm’s Kitchen pops up along a street corner, she says.