‘Chopped’ champion revolutionizing cafeteria cuisine in Seattle schools

A Food Network “Chopped” champion, private chef, and restauranter is shaking things up at Seattle Public Schools. Chef Emmy Collins is district chef and working every day to bring more diversity to meals in schools.

That means goodbye to the chicken nuggets and pizza – at least on some days – swapped out for things like a build-your-own Vietnamese pho bar.

Chef Collins tells KIRO 7′s Deedee Sun she is leaning on her Afro-Brazilian roots to tantalize tastebuds and make school lunches more inclusive.

“My life experience influences me 1000%. I was born in Brazil and I came to Seattle when I was six years old,” Collins said. She said she was enamored by the idea of American life.

“Oh, my God. I’m getting in a yellow school bus! It was just things in the movies,” Collins said. But that shine quickly faded come lunch time. “It was such a disappointment. I was so disappointed. I was always hungry,” she said.

“Do you remember what you were eating?” Sun asked.

“Corn dogs and just you know, the typical, kids menu food, which didn’t exist in my culture,” Collins said.

Now she’s the one making calls on cafeteria cuisine, creating menus for kids. And through food, she’s working to help make Seattle’s diverse pool of public school students feel included.

Collins is delivering delicacies from a wide variety of cuisines.

“Pho was like a big hit,” she said. “Bean sprouts and lots of veggies.” The set up is a soup bar that varies in flavor, and kids can pick their own ingredients to add. She says the build-your-own options are particularly popular with middle and high school students who love the autonomy.

Other dishes she’s brought to the table include an East African dish that’s red-lentil based, called misir wat, served with injera – a traditional flat bread. She’s also served tiki masala,  Filipino congee, Pacific Northwest salmon bowls, and sushi and dumplings, to name a few. Other popular options are the Tex-Mex and pasta build-it-yourself bars.

The eats are not what you’d expect coming out of the central kitchen that churns out lunches from ingredients by the pallet, cooked in massive kettles, and delivered on conveyer belts. That’s because another big focus is cooking with quality, local ingredients.

“Eastern Washington beef – the farmer brings it over to us,” Collins said.  A video from Seattle Public Schools shows Collins visiting the Sherman Pioneer Farms in Coupeville, where the school gets a squash supply.

“It’s nice how we don’t have the same food every day anymore,” a student in the video says.

“To be able to make those students be seen by just putting the food from their culture on the menu is like so special. I know, because I was one of them, Collins said.

Chef Emme Collins came to Seattle Public Schools in 2019 – at the time she was a private chef, in catering, and running her family’s Brazilian restaurant.

She says when some landlord issues came up, she thought about opportunities with SPS since her mom used to be a culinary instructor at Rainier Beach.

Aaron Smith is the district’s director of nutrition services.

“I was looking for a district chef, somebody with like a diverse background knowledge of different cuisines, especially international type foods. When I saw her application come in – like we definitely need to bring this person in for an interview,” Smith said.

Collins was a shoo-in. And being district chef turned from a temporary gig to a passion. Collins has been shaking up what’s served ever since.

“I can do this daydreaming and creation of recipes,” Collins said.

“When Emme came in with some big ideas, I said let’s do it. We’ll figure out the rest. But let’s go ahead and try it,” Smith said

Collins refuses to let the necessity of mass production clog creativity – and now, she’s inspired other districts to follow suit

“They’re always reaching out. Can we get your recipes? So there’s always that recipe sharing part of it. I’m not here to keep this recipe,” Collins said. “I want to change school lunch on a national level.”

How does all this happen on a school district budget? Smith says the way the books work out might surprise you.

“Purchasing local is more affordable than buying commercial. Commercial, you got to pay full freight and processing and other fees. That makes it more expensive than just buying it locally. So it balances out,” Smith said. Smith and Collins also secured a grant that helps fund farm-to-table food at schools.

During the Food Network “Chopped” episode (by the way, it’s Season 50, Episode 8, “Shakes and Fries”), Collins leaned on her culture to make magic out of mystery ingredients - each dish bringing Afro-Brazilian notes.

“To have embraced my culture and to have won, be awarded for being unique and special - even as an adult that did so much for my self-confidence,” Collins said. “There’s kids from all walks of life, all different cultures. So to be able to play a part to make any and every student be seen is a full-circle moment,” she said.

Collins says her goal is to inspire other chefs to join SPS or their local school districts, and bring creativity and passion for good, diverse food to students.

In August 2022, Collins was on another Food Network show “Alex Vs. America” and beat out the other contestants – except for the host, Alex.