There is nothing more memorable for a person than the memories of spending good times with the ones you love. For chef Emme Collins, food, family and fun were always present in her home in Salvador, Brazil—especially on the weekends. It was happy moments like these that would later inspire her to become the highly coveted private chef and entrepreneur that she is today.
Food, Family and a Chef Mom
Salvador, in the state of Bahia, is the third-largest city in Brazil. Known for its delicious Afro-Brazilian cuisine, food became an important and central part of Collins’s world. “My mom owned a catering company that was based out of our home kitchen. She was a stay-at-home mom and the chef of the house. Parties are huge in Brazil—it does not matter what it is[for], we go all out with food.
“Everyone used to gather at my house on the weekends. My parents both came from large families; there were five kids in my mom’s family and nine in my father’s. All of the family would randomly come to our home, and it was a lot of fun.” Collins says.
In a search for a better life, Collins’ parents sat her down with some news; they were moving to America so that her mother could take a cooking course. “I was six years old when we came to Seattle in 1994, but my mom came to America first,” Collins says.
“Prior to us moving to Seattle, my mom spent six months in Miami. She was alone, pregnant with my brother and depressed.” At the suggestion of a friend, her mother moved to the West Coast. “My mom had a good friend who lived in Seattle, and she didn’t want my mother to be alone. After my mom’s course ended, she felt so alone and sad that she wanted to come back to Brazil. Yet, the plan was for my father and me to move to the United States so that we all could have a better future.”
Although she was young when her family moved to the states, culture shock set in. “First, my mom left and was gone [to Miami] for six months. That really changed the atmosphere of my home because it didn’t feel like home anymore,” Collins recalls. “It didn’t hit me that I would be leaving my home and my family in Brazil and wouldn’t see them again for many, many years. I was super excited to see my mom, though.
- Black Travel, Black Dollars Series: Rio de Janeiro
- Chef Oumar Diouf Scores a Winning Goal with Afro-Brazilian Fusion Cuisine
“As we started living in Seattle, it was like, ‘Oh my God, what the heck is this?’ School was the biggest culture shock for me. The school system is very different than in Brazil and I didn’t speak the language. It was hard yet, new and exciting. It was a mixture of different emotions. Going on a school bus was different because we didn‘t have school buses in Brazil. We had to walk for miles, or we had public transportation, but catching the school bus was fun and amazing,” she shares.
But the biggest change for Collins was something near and dear to her heart, the food. “In Brazil, you go to AM or PM school, so you always have lunch at home, and lunch is as big as dinner,” she says. “People would leave and go home for lunch, and it was an hour long. My mom or grandma would make big meals for my lunch. Then coming here to Seattle, we had corn dogs in school. I remember thinking about the food, ‘What is a corndog? What is all of this stuff?’ I would go hungry in school and come home with headaches because I wouldn’t eat lunch. It was hard to adjust to some things. And I still hate corndogs. I don’t understand. What is it? So gross,” Collins laughs.
Making Changes in the Pacific Northwest
“When we first moved to Seattle, we lived in the Central District where my mom’s friend lived. Before gentrification, it was a predominantly Black area,” Collins says. “The circle that my parents kept themselves in was the Brazilian community. There were African people, dancers, musicians and others of diverse cultures.”
As a part of living the American dream, her parents opened their first restaurant named Tempero Do Brasil when translated means, “Seasonings of Brazil. Collins says, “I worked at their restaurant. I thought I was going to be in the hospitality field, but more front-of-the-house management style. I also started working at different restaurants around Seattle as a server. I would come home and try to replicate what the chef was making and became more interested in the cooking.”
At 19, Collins moved to the east coast to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., for business management. However, her time at the prestigious HBCU was short lived. “I didn’t stay long because I found out I was pregnant and ended up moving back to Seattle. I then decided to go to culinary school and it was amazing. I knew that I didn’t want to work my way up in a restaurant because I always knew that I would be making my own way and working for myself, doing my own thing, so culinary school gave me the confidence that I needed. I could now say, ‘Yes, I am a chef and I know what I am doing.”
Private Chef to the Stars
Having parents who were restauranteurs helped Collins realize one thing about herself —she didn’t want to ever work in a restaurant. Now a mother herself, Collins knew that she didn’t want her daughter to experience what she did. “When I was in the seventh grade, my parents opened the restaurant, and they were literally never home. It was tough. Nights and weekends, my parents were at the restaurant, so I spent many nights alone with my brother.”
Collins continues, “After having my daughter and attending culinary school, I knew that I wanted to be a private chef. On the last week of school, we had a job board, and a posting came up for a family looking for a private chef/assistant. I started working with this family as their chef and everything else in between. However, I quickly saw that it was not as sweet of a deal as I thought it was. So, in 2013, I decided to launch my website as a private chef and my catering company, Soul & Spice & Private Chef Services. It just kind of snowballed right after I launched my site.”
The popular website, Thumbtack, helped Collins get the clientele that she was looking for. “Thumbtack had just started, and there were many requests for private chef services. I wanted to get more catering and private chef clients, and thanks to Thumbtack, I got Eddie Vedder lead singer of the rock band Pearl Jam. But my first client taught me not to put my eggs in one basket. After working with them, I was never a private chef for just one family again. I started taking on different clients and would go a couple days a week to one house, a couple days a week to another, and delivered meal prep to some.”
Clients were so pleased with her services that they began to spread the word. “My clients would talk to their friends about using me as a private chef. I began to do weddings and other events. I started meeting venue owners, photographers, planners by making connections, and my business grew organically.” Some high-profile clients she has worked with include Seattle native and NBA great Jamal Crawford, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife, R&B singer Ciara and Craig McCaw of AT&T Wireless Services, to name a few.
Changes in the Kitchen
With mouthwatering, authentic Brazilian dishes such as feijoada (Brazilian black bean stew), peixe frito (fried white fish) and vaca atolada (traditional beef dish) on the menu, Tempero Do Brasil quickly became a Seattle favorite; her parents’ hard work had paid off. However, Collins had no idea that things were about to change for the restaurant.
“My parents were tired and in 2017, they announced that they were retiring and closing the restaurant,” she remembers. “Although I had never wanted to own a restaurant or work in one, I had to take over for business reasons,” Collins says. “I was also using the restaurant kitchen for my catering. That was the spot that I grew up in, and my oldest daughter did as well. All of our moments—birthday parties, my engagement party, everything that was special happened in our restaurant.
“It was our second home, and we could not grasp the concept of their restaurant closing. Yet, my parents were done and ready to retire. So, I decided to take over. My first thought was to make it an events space as an extension of my catering. However, no one understood my concept and I was really pressured into opening it as a restaurant.”
She continues, “I launched Alcove in 2018 as a homage to my Afro-Brazilian roots and Pacific Northwest upbringing and the dishes reflect the mix of the two cultures. There were a lot of authentic Bahian dishes which are regional to where I was born. Because I did go to culinary school, the dishes were refined and elevated.”
In addition to everything that Collins does, she continued her journey as an entrepreneur by launching the Chef Business Academy during the beginning of the pandemic. These online courses are for those who are either already a chef or those who have a passion for cooking and want to become a personal chef.
And the Winner Is
In April 2021, Collins had the opportunity to compete on an episode of the Food Network’s “Chopped” which was filmed in New Jersey and aired on September 24. “The shows production company came in my Instagram direct message and asked if I would be interested in competing,” Collins says.
She has competed in the past on another Food Network show, “Cutthroat Kitchen” as well as “MasterChef on Fox and compares her experience on “Chopped” as one that was “positive and fun.” Recalling the experience, she says, “The time is real. The clock is 15 minutes and it is 100 percent real; you do not know what is in your mystery basket. I think I came in already with ideas, even though I didn’t know what was in my basket.”
When announced the winner of the grand prize of $10,000, Collins cried. “I was so excited that I cried,” she says. “I didn’t win the other shows, so to win this was amazing and I couldn’t wait to tell my family.” The winning dish was “a sweet potato donut with a mole spice sugar on top. I have served it here in Seattle for some clients without using the other ingredients in the basket,” Collins laughs. “And they love it.”