Student chefs create meals fit for a king (of the jungle)

The kitchen at the Beardsley Zoo bustled with activity as eight Trumbull High School students sliced and diced ingredients in preparation for the cook-off in part of the zoo’s new commissary opening on May 25.

The students — Kyle Peterson, Zach Young, Anthony Moutinho, Nick Weimann, Amanda Suarez Kya Hunter and twins Christian and Andrew Sweeney — created dishes based off food that the zoo purchases for its animals.

The cuisine varied far and wide, such as Peterson’s Thai glazed salmon dish for an eagle or Nick Weimann’s chicken teriyaki with a mango kale salad for a red-footed tortoise.

Lead by chef Craig Voytek, who teaches advanced culinary and bakeshop classes at Trumbull High, the students presented their finished products to a host of judges who would then award them in different categories.

“This was a first time for them [and] a first time for me and it was a great experience to bring them out of the building and do something off-site like this,” said Voytek, as the students behind him showed off their culinary skills in the kitchen.

He thought the cook-off was an excellent opportunity for the students to work in a different professional environment, allowing them to work on presenting their creations to an audience.

This professional environment may be the future of some of the students as both Suarez and Peterson would be going to the Culinary Institute of America, in addition to Zach Young looking forward to the culinary program at Santa Barbara City College, Calif.

“My favorite part about cooking, I think, is seeing people as they eat my food,” said Suarez.

Her Spanish-inspired dish based off a condor’s diet was a carne asada which fused together yellow rice and sweet plantains.

While Voytek did provide guidance and motivation for the students, the young chefs were able to use teamwork to help each other create the best dish possible for the hungry judges.

Then, as the cooking came to a close and the stoves brimmed down, each student brought up their unique plate to present for competition.

In the end the judges awarded most fresh to Peterson, most likely to please a tiger to Young, most elegant to Moutinho, most attractive to Weimann, most zesty to Suarez, most creative to Christian Sweeney, most likely to please a monkey to Andrew Sweeney and most colorful for Hunter.

“A big thank you to the Trumbull High School Culinary Program students and their Chef Instructor Craig Voytek,” said zoo director Gregg Dancho. “The new commissary is now an up-to-date match for the 21st Century animal diets prepared there.”

Animal caretakers at the zoo prepare dozens of nutritionally balanced animal meals and snacks each day for the zoo’s 300 animal residents, utilizing fresh, human-grade foods, ranging from local fish and lamb shanks to grains, fruit, vegetables, and more. The new commissary, funded in part with a grant from the City of Bridgeport, offers enhanced food preparation areas, a larger pantry, refrigerator and freezer, and a large window so guests can watch food preparation and learn more about animal diets.

Zoo official Lisa Clair said the exercise showed just how much people have in common with their fellow animals.

“I think the most important part for the students is they get an opportunity to see that food and nutrition covers humanity as well as animals,” said Lisa Clair of the Beardsley Zoo. “It's all one big circle right, it's that circle of life and earth and the animals and we all eat basically the same things.”

The zoo’s new commissary, in which visitors can see see the zoo keepers prepare meals for the animals, can be found in their Rainforest Building.