For Phoebe Zimmerman, the charming, tattoo-covered chef de cuisine at Freya, cooking isn't just about skill — it's about connection, too. Both aspects are surely at play when it comes to why the Detroit farm-to-table restaurant was the only Michigan business featured in the New York Times 2022 America’s Best Restaurant list.
Zimmerman’s refreshing approach to fine dining is an ideal fit for a Detroit restaurant in the midst of a cultural renaissance. “Those are the things you need to bring a city back for sure: queerness, art, music, fashion and food,” Zimmerman told Pride Source.
Owner and executive chef Doug Hewitt met Zimmerman through a mutual connection a few months before the fine dining restaurant opened in November of 2021 and was immediately drawn to them. So, Zimmerman, a Detroiter who identifies as nonbinary, has worked at Freya ever since, delivering inclusive ideas and bright-colored dishes.
In the midst of a variety of life challenges, Zimmerman’s focus at Freya has remained constant and has served as a beacon connecting them to the community through food.
Alongside Hewitt and sous chef Cole Lauri, Zimmerman helped create the menu at Freya, which includes a range of vegan, pescetarian and omnivore new-American “experiences” that customers can choose from.
“What makes Phoebe great as a chef is they’re fearless. Phoebe cooks with a ton of layers of flavor. Everything Phoebe does is very well thought out and calculated,” Hewitt said. “People need to experience Freya and experience Phoebe. They won’t be disappointed.”
Now 38, Zimmerman came out as a lesbian at the age of 16. Their “coming out 2.0” happened in September 2021, when they realized that the term non-binary best describes their experience.
Growing up in Grosse Pointe, Zimmerman said there wasn’t a lot of queer representation, but they always felt there was a part of them that was “boyish.”
“I have my femininity in my divine womanhood that I find very powerful, that's where I think a lot of my strength and resilience comes from,” Zimmerman said. “I definitely feel like I have womanhood, but I don't feel like a man either. But I definitely feel like a boy and I think the boy part of me is this deep joy of playfulness and boundless kind of curiosity.”
After experiencing body dysphoria for a long time, Zimmerman got top surgery in November 2022.
“It's hard to look at me. It's hard to be intimate with people. It's hard to be naked,” Zimmerman said. “It wasn't easy for me. I just felt like I was carrying bags. Like luggage, feeding apparatuses, or whatever. It was never a beauty thing for me. When the bandages came off, when I got to see it for the first time, it was like, ‘Oh my god, there you are.’”
Zimmerman is proud they can be who they are and look the way they do while working as a successful chef.
“You'll never know everything when it comes to food and I feel the same way about the self — we're constantly changing,” they said. “It's like, ‘What am I feeling today?’ And I feel like that is really closely knit with food. For me, it's like a way of expression, expressing who and what I really am and being able to bring people together that normally wouldn't be.”
Last year, Zimmerman hosted a vegan dinner at FRAME in Hazel Park to celebrate Pride Month. The dinner was just a week after Zimmerman’s mom died, but ended up being a huge success nonetheless. “A lot of people were like, ‘Don't do it. You don't have to do it.’ And I was like, ‘She would be so pissed,'” Zimmerman said. “It went so smooth.”
While Zimmerman said they love the ability to make a living and be “weird and creative” through fine dining, their main reason for cooking is connection. One goal of theirs is to grow the accessibility of their food for Detroit locals.
“This is what makes me really actually quite happy,” Zimmerman said. “The community that we're in, which is Milwaukee Junction, is the heartbeat of Detroit.”
The chef said Freya has “masc energy” and described the space as “dark and sexy,” with basement block windows that give the building a mysterious speakeasy feel. Speaking with general manager Thor Jones about ideas for Black History Month, Zimmerman said they realized Freya was “screaming to be an art gallery.”
So, they made it just that.
Freya’s first event, called Blue Love, showcased five Detroit artists of color: Sheefy McFly, Tony Rave, Phillip Simpson, Tony Whlgn and India Solomon. “This Black History Month, we are launching an ongoing installation honoring Detroit’s Black artists and their invaluable contributions to sustaining, preserving and stewarding the city’s culture,” said a post ahead of the party from @freyadetroit on Instagram.
For the showing, Freya created a specialized menu, almost all of the art sold and around 300 people attended, Zimmerman said. “It was one of the most magic moments. It's like, ‘Yeah, we show up in Detroit.’”
Now, in addition to Zimmerman’s multicolored dishes, the local art makes the restaurant brighter.
“We’re trying to do things that are impactful to the neighborhood, the culture that was here before we got here and the culture that will follow, we’re just trying to be a part of it,” Hewitt said.
Thinking about the city of Detroit, Zimmerman related the culture and people to a “heart that has continued to beat.”
The chef helped Freya host a set of trans and nonbinary artists on May 8 for an event called “Abundance,” and hopes to continue their “passion project” of curating events like this for the community regularly. “I want to provide a place where people can live in their dignity and feel like they belong and are safe,” Zimmerman said.
As someone who is a recovering drug addict, Zimmerman compared gratitude, “the foundational piece of recovery,” to their work with food, mainly by framing their success as a gift and a result of their continued sobriety.
“Sometimes I don't know how or why I have been able or offered so many blessings, so many great things,” Zimmerman said. “What recovery has taught me is that I don't know anything ever and to continue to remind myself that I get to do the things that I'm doing. Even the hard shit is an opportunity. Like even the hardest shit, at least I'm here for it.”