In the Field: Chef Don Zimmer

Author: In the Field

“The hardest thing about cooking, for anybody, would be time management. There’s always a lot of things going on at once” Don Zimmer, Professional Chef, tells Kraig Ehm on In The Field.

July 6, 2018

Kraig Ehm and Chef Don Zimmer

“The hardest thing about cooking, for anybody, would be time management. There’s always a lot of things going on at once” Don Zimmer, Professional Chef, tells Kraig Ehm on In The Field.

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In the Field with Chef Don Zimmer - Transcript

Kraig Ehm: Welcome to In the Field, a podcast originating from the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources at Michigan State University. I'm Kraig Ehm. In this episode of In the Field, we will begin with a question. "What does a banjo playing professional chef have to do with Michigan State University Extension?" Well, we're going to find out. Joining me is chef Don Zimmer. Don, thanks for joining me.

Don Zimmer: You're welcome. It's a pleasure to be here.

Ehm: Before we discuss your connection to Extension, talk a little bit about your career as a chef.

Zimmer: Well, after a failed attempt at engineering at Michigan Technological University, I started building houses and decided that the one thing I'd always liked to do was cooking. There was a technical school in the city I was at, at the time. So I quit building houses. Got a job as a prep cook at the local golf club, and enrolled in the two-year associate's degree program for culinary arts.

Ehm: What kind of food do you specialize in?

Zimmer: Well, after several years in private dining service at golf clubs, I worked at public restaurants, Pasta. My wife wanted to move to Vancouver, Canada to work on her PhD. Of course, I went along with her, and my opportunity to cook there had lots of Asian influences. So I'd like to say I prefer cooking Asian cuisine.

Ehm: What's the hardest thing about cooking for you?

Zimmer: Well, I guess the hardest thing about cooking for anybody would be time management. There's always a lot of things going on at once. You want to make the people happy. Of course, the food should taste good. In order for it to taste good, it has to look good. It has to be hot, if it's supposed to be hot. It has to be cold, if it's supposed to be cold. That has to do with the service of it. But I really don't find much difficult in cooking. I enjoy every aspect of it.

Ehm: Now for the pickin and the grinning. What piqued your interest in playing the banjo, or how did you get started?

Zimmer: Well, when my father was alive, he played the banjo pretty well. When I was younger, I used to complain that it was just a lot of background noise. He played for about 18 years when I was younger. I never played before, but of course I listened to it a lot. When he passed away, I realized there was something missing. I was humming banjo tunes in my head, and plunking on the steering wheel as I drove. I thought, "Well, there's a banjo around the house somewhere. I better pick it up and play it." I took to it pretty quickly. I attribute that to listening to it for all those years as he played.

Ehm: Quite a bit different than playing a guitar?

Zimmer: I suppose. I know guitar players, and a lot of it is based on chords and strumming. The banjo I play is called "Old-Time" or "Clawhammer Banjo". It's not like the bluegrass banjo with the finger picking. It's a hybrid between strumming and picking melody. They actually call it a "frailing". So it's not really strumming or picking. It's more "old timey" they call it. Sometimes "mountain music", it's referred to.

Ehm: As a chef, how did you get connected with extension? What is your involvement with Extension?

Zimmer: Well, it started out my daughter was a 4H kid, and I of course enjoyed it myself. So I would show up at the meetings, and over time I was asked to help out any way I could, which I have a hard time of saying "no". So I started out as a 4H parent. I then helped out at the Michigan State Exploration Days as a county coordinating assistant, which I think is a terrific program for the kids. I had done that three years in a row. I of course helped out at the fair. I got roped into doing photography, which wasn't necessarily my specialty, but it takes a lot of organization and time management, which goes right along hand in hand with cooking, and of course I enjoy that. One of the other 4H parents, is a MSU Extension nutritionist. One day she asked me if I would like to volunteer with her Cooking Matters class. That's how I got started. We did one class together. She asked me if I was interested in doing another one. In discussing with my wife, she said, "Well, is there a reason why you're not going to?" I said, "No." I said, "There's no reason why not," and so I stuck with it. Now I think I'm close to 30 classes with a nutritionist. I'm now helping out with the Dining with Diabetes, and it's given me the opportunity to do some filming for the MSU video.

Ehm: How important is it for people to eat right, especially with people with diabetes?

Zimmer: Well, I think it's important for everybody to eat right. I think the biggest thing they miss is the variety of things they can eat. You get stuck in eating the same thing over, and over, and over. Without the experience of new foods, it isn't necessarily a skill, but just the introduction experience with new food gives you an opportunity to try it. It's something I always like to say, I like to say, "Variety is the spice of life." So if you're looking for spice in life, not necessarily flavor-wise, but choices, and a variety, I think that sort of adds like I said, the spice of life.

Ehm: Let's talk a little bit about diabetes and healthy eating. How important is that?

Zimmer: Well, it's always interesting to me that diabetics in general, they don't really have a good grasp on what's healthy and what's not healthy. They're more caught up in what the latest trend is. Don't eat this because it said so on the news. I like to, with my experience, just introduce fresh, variety ingredients, so that they can experience nutrition, in the natural form. A lot of the times they're not eating the vegetables and the fruits. Then again, not very healthy choices in their proteins. It's very important that they monitor their carbohydrates for their sugars. But then again on top of that, there's also other healthy choices that they can make such as leaner meats, seafood over meat, healthy oils in their fats, instead of just cutting out any fats or trying to avoid them knowing that they're healthy fats. Eating is something we all enjoy, and if we can eat healthy, it will make us happy. It will also make us healthy.

Ehm: What puts a smile on your face when you're able to work with extension, and you're able to teach people how to eat right?

Zimmer: Well, no matter what the student is, if I can encourage them to try something that they didn't think they'd like, even if in the end they didn't like it, I'm happy when they've tried it. Of course, it's double pleasing if they try something they didn't think they would like, and then they turned out to like it. Of course, I'm trying to give them something nutritious, and so it's going to be a healthier choice. And if they try something that's healthier, didn't think they would like it, and they do in the end, they smile and they say, "Gee chef, I never thought I'd like that, and it was so easy." So I think that in itself is what makes me happy at the end of the day.

Ehm: I'd like to thank chef Don Zimmer for joining me today. Be sure to listen for another episode of In the Field. Don, take us home, son. Banjo plays.


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