Fast HIgh QualIty Food
By Cheryl Mah
Chefs Quarterly Summer 2012
From pastry shops and hotels to airlines and ships, Hans Zimmermann has enjoyed a diverse career for more than four decades. He has traveled around the world, worked with many great chefs and successfully honed his talent and organizational skills.
Today Zimmermann oversees B.C. Ferries food and beverage retail services where his focus is on introducing new food concepts and innovative menus to the 22 million passengers that travel on the ferry service every year.
“On our ships we have 300-400 customers lining up and they need food fast. We need to provide high quality fast service and we do it well,” says Zimmermann from his office in Tsawwassen.
His other responsibilities include food safety standards, training, testing new equipment, sourcing products and working closely with suppliers.
“I work long hours. It’s a very stressful job but I enjoy it,” he says with a chuckle. “I started as a pastry chef and now I’m here as manager and it’s fantastic.”
Zimmermann believes the culinary profession is full of opportunities and if young chefs persevere, they can reap many rewards.
“What’s happening is a lot of people leave the trade but what I want to say to the young people is the opportunities are so incredible — so wide,” he says. “I know it’s hard but if you keep going and learning and travel, the door is wide open.”
Zimmerman’s own career is a perfect example.
Born and raised in the small town of Solothurn, Switzerland, Zimmermann’s culinary career started at the age of 15 when he took a three year apprenticeship as a confiseur at a pastry shop in Burgdorf.
“My first job was delivering bread and buns in a basket on my bicycle to homes when I was 13,” he recalls.
After his apprenticeship, he served two years in the army before working at Mojonnier, a high end pastry shop in Lausanne, Switzerland where customers included celebrities like Charlie Chaplin.
In 1970, he went to Montreal to work as a pastry chef at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. He was then asked to be a part of the opening team for a new hotel in South Africa where he trained many cooks as executive pastry chef.
Because he’s always had a love of cooking, he returned to Switzerland in 1972 and completed a two year cook apprenticeship before joining the Post Hotel Valbella as chef at the age of 26.
From there, he went on to open two more major properties for Westin Hotels — one in Edmonton and one in the Philippines.
He returned to Vancouver in 1978 and saw a newspaper advertisement for a German speaking flight attendant for Wardair Airline.
“I said why not. I've always enjoyed contact with customers and talking to people. What I was missing in the kitchen was dealing with people,” explains Zimmerman, who speaks three languages (German, French and English).
He was a flight attendant for two years before becoming the manager of in-flight food services.
Wardair was taken over by Canadian Airlines in 1990 and he continued on as manager of catering food services and standards.
Working in the airline industry meant traveling all over the world and making menu decisions. “I would travel to South America, Asia, Japan, China, Europe and work with the flight kitchens in creating all the different menus,” he says. “I met lots of great chefs. It was an incredible experience.”
His airline experience also made him realize his passion was “not so much cooking but putting food together what should go together and how can we serve it fast.”
“I was good at creating menus that would be reheated up at 40,000 feet and you wouldn't even know it was reheated. This became my specialty,” says Zimmermann.
In 1996, he brought his talents to B.C. Ferries, one of the largest ferry operators in the world and one of the largest restaurant operators in the province. He works closely with two colleagues including corporate development chef David Jorgensen (formerly of Salmon House on the Hill) and approximately 50 chief cooks on the company’s 35 vessels.
“We have really changed the menus on B.C. Ferries and improved the menus. We have brought in modern roducts removed old style products like Salisbury steaks and also introduced new food partners with White Spot, Bread Garden and Starbucks,” he says. “People recognize a brand like White Spot so we were able to increase our sales by offering branded products which was quite important and a big change.”
A good example of a new food concept was the successful introduction of Asian noodle boxes in the fall of 2008. Today, about 150,000 boxes are sold annually.
Other popular items include burgers (more than one million are sold annually), chicken strips, french fries and clam chowder. Annual food sales are $70 million.
“We use very clean products — meaning no preservatives, no MSG,” says Zimmerman. “We were one of the first companies in 2009 that had no added trans fat in our products.”
A buffet is also available on four vessels where one cook serves 200 customers every two hours. The menu has two cycles and changes weekly, featuring an international fare of cold and hot items.
“Our buffet is very popular. We use local products and again very clean products. We are also working on gluten free items,” he says. “We have a fabulous chocolate buffet too which I think is the best in town.”
His philosophy is natural and clean food using locally grown products to create good tasting flavours. “This is a difficult task because you’re talking about heat and serve. But we use real stock in our soups and our sauces so we really have a good base of ingredients,” says Zimmermann. “It’s about how can we make food to be served in a simple way and working with suppliers to make it all come together.”
His creativity in menu development is based on consistency and quality of wholesome ingredients.
To achieve consistency, Zimmermann sources high quality pre-made sauces which is used by all the crews. “Each vessel has three watches — a morning watch, an afternoon watch and one that is off. We always have three different crews preparing the same menu. We cook the protein [fish or chicken breast] but the sauces we would heat up and then add to it. That way we have great consistency.”
Zimmermann also believes pre-made food is a future trend especially with the expected labour shortage and the high cost of qualified labour. “You have to simplify the food preparation. You cannot do everything in-house anymore. Even hotels are using some pre-made items. The industry is getting more creative in those kinds of things,” he says, adding food trucks and microwave convection ovens are other trends he is excited about because both deliver fast high quality food.
When asked about a career highlight, Zimmermann is quick to point to 2007 when B.C. Ferries built three coastal class vessels in Germany. “It was a huge task rolling out three new vessels. It was a successful launch with all new equipment, new galley kitchen layouts and new concepts,” he says. Zimmermann along with John Bishop went to Germany for 10 days and organized a party for 3,000 guests to celebrate the completion of the first vessel.
“We served all the ship workers a lunch of bison burgers with bannock buns, clam chowder and blueberry apple crumble. It was a fantastic experience,” remembers Zimmermann.
His extensive travels around the world mean he has enjoyed tasting a wide variety of food. Personal favorite dishes include sweet bread, seafood and beef bone marrow.
“I love bone marrow. I know it’s fattening but I just love it,” he laughs. “My favourite spices are anais and cilantro especially in Chinese or Thai cuisine.”
When he’s not working Zimmermann spends his time with his wife Christiane and watches his two boys (aged 11 and 16) play in soccer tournaments. He also enjoys hiking and gardening.