CHEFS AND restaurants pivoted so much in the past year, some were practically pirouetting. But changing course is nothing new for chef Emme Ribeiro Collins.
She was 20 years old and two weeks into her first semester at Howard University, pursuing a career in hospitality management, when she learned she was pregnant. The Brazilian-born Collins had worked hard to get into the school of her dreams after graduating from Ingraham High School and North Seattle Community College. She had no intention of becoming “a statistic,” she says. “I proceeded with the plan I had, even though I had to alter it.”
She returned to Seattle to have the baby and marry her high school beau, Michael Collins. Shifting her sights to cooking, she enrolled in Seattle Central Community College’s culinary arts program. The pregnancy was difficult, and her daughter, Denise, now 13, arrived by emergency C-section at 29 weeks. Undaunted, Collins not only finished the program, she was voted “Outstanding Culinarian” of her graduating class by her chef instructors.
Collins grew up a restaurant kid, the daughter of Antonio and Graca Ribeiro, whose restaurant, Tempero do Brazil, was a U District fixture for nearly two decades. After working there and at other restaurants through her teen years, Collins had no romantic illusions about the business. She had a different idea of how to use her culinary education and experience.
In 2013, tired of low-paying restaurant shifts, she started a private chef and catering business, thinking she could set her own hours and spend quality time with her family. She discovered many people are willing to pay a premium price for private or personal chef services. A private chef cooks full-time in someone’s home; a personal chef prepares meals in a commercial kitchen for delivery to one or more clients on a regular schedule. Celebrity and corporate clients became her core market. In time, she acquired enough high-profile, high-net-worth clients — among them Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and NBA star Jamal Crawford — that she was making a six-figure income.
When her parents decided to close their restaurant in 2018 and retire, it surprised Collins, by then a mother of three. “It was really hard for all of us to let go, even though we were all kind of worn down by it,” she says. The closure also put a kink in her operations. She depended on the restaurant kitchen for her catering jobs. She either had to look for another commercial kitchen or take over the restaurant.
She chose the latter, converting the freewheeling Brazilian ambience of Tempero into the coolly contemporary Alcove Dining Room, which doubled as a private event space. Alcove opened with a prix fixe menu, limited hours and communal seating, but the formal dinners proved less popular than the samba-fueled fun of weekly petiscos (snacks) nights and monthly feijoada feasts. Fourteen months later, it closed. “It was fun to be creative and showcase my background, but it was stressful,” says Collins. “Inheriting that place, I inherited the history between the landlord and my parents.”
Since the fall of 2019, she has been district executive chef for Seattle Public Schools, creating school lunch menus with an eye toward making them more “culturally relevant.” Ethiopian dishes with injera and Chinese dumpling soup have made appearances. She’s mindful of her own experience as a sixth grader at Thurgood Marshall Elementary and newly arrived to this country. “Corn dogs were a culture shock, and no one knew what Brazilian food was.”
As it has for so many people, the pandemic year prompted introspection. Collins is fortunate to have a full-time job, as well as personal chef clients. Her husband owns his own company and works from home, so he can take on child-care responsibilities and supervise home schooling. But it pained Collins to see so many of her friends and colleagues out of work. Having successfully created her own “chef brand,” she thought she could teach others how they could do it, too.
In March, she launched an online course through her website ChefEmme.com. Called “Six-Figure Chef,” the $697 self-paced package is the centerpiece of her latest side hustle, The Chef Business Academy. When you buy the package, you get access to Collins as a mentor. Her message: If I can, so can you. She’s marketing the course solely through social media, mainly on Instagram (@chefemme_), where she doles out nuggets of advice and encouragement in bouncy reels, stories and posts.
An example: Clients always want to see pictures of your food, and she strongly recommends investing in professional food photography for your portfolio. Sometimes you can barter by staging sessions with other professionals like event planners, florists and photographers, where each provides a service. She has found that people will always trade for food.
Collins grew up being taught that you don’t talk about how much money you make, but she says she wants to, so she can help people do the same. She hopes her course attracts at least two or three clients a month for the first year, then she can start sharing their success stories. She enjoys the mentoring aspect. “Sharing my career and seeing their success is feeding something I didn’t know was there before.”
She wants aspiring chefs to know there’s another road to explore, and she wishes private chefs and caterers were as celebrated and acknowledged as restaurant chefs. When she was in culinary school, the prevailing thought was being a “real chef” meant working in a restaurant. Despite her success, that notion of legitimacy was a driving force in taking over her family’s restaurant. “When I was opening the restaurant, people called me ambitious,” she says. “I took that as a negative thing.” At age 33, she finds she cares less about what people think. “Now I feel freer. All the negative thoughts I had about being an ambitious woman are starting to melt away.”