FOOD & NUTRITION

What’s cooking at the zoo?

Executive chef just one of many attractions

5/13/2014
BY MARY BILYEU
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
The Toledo Zoo’s executive chef, Sam Misiura.
The Toledo Zoo’s executive chef, Sam Misiura.

“WOW!” They’ll all cheer,

“What this zoo must be worth!

It’s the gol-darndest zoo

On the face of the earth!”

Dr. Seuss wrote these lines in his classic book If I Ran the Zoo, about the fantasy land dreamt up by young Gerald McGrew. But they could easily apply to the Toledo Zoo, just one of the wonderful assets in this city.

And while there are many reasons to consider the zoo a gem, one is that it has its own executive chef, Sam Misiura.

Many zoos “subcontract for catering or concessions,” says Mr. Misiura; but the Toledo Zoo does everything in-house for occasions ranging from conferences to wedding receptions to fund-raisers. Mr. Misiura even prepared a polenta cake, frosted with peanut butter and decorated with fruit, for Louie the elephant’s recent 11th birthday party.

Preparing food for the animals isn’t usually in Mr. Misura’s job description; he feeds guests rather than residents. The zoo’s commissary feeds the animals, and the concessions department prepares a variety of foods for visitors. The one-site bakery prepares cakes and other baked goods, while the chef and his catering staff handle food for events.

Originally from Scranton, Pa., Mr. Misiura has worked for the Toledo Zoo for 13 years. He and his wife, Lia, moved to town in 2000, and Mr. Misiura “worked in restaurants around town for a few years before settling at the Zoo.” He says, “I was hired on here as a kitchen supervisor. After a few years, I became sous chef and finally executive chef at age 30.”

Steak with chimichurri, asparagus, blackened shrimp.
Steak with chimichurri, asparagus, blackened shrimp.

Mr. Misiura is extremely conscientious about the foods he prepares, following the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommendations, as he says this list excludes politics and focuses solely on the effects of fishing while striving to encourage a healthy ecosystem.

Salad with grapefruit, asparagus, queso fresco, tortilla crisps.
Salad with grapefruit, asparagus, queso fresco, tortilla crisps.

He also wholeheartedly supports the farm-to-table concept of purchasing locally to the greatest extent possible, knowing vendors and farmers personally and supporting agriculture in northwest Ohio. (This year, the zoo will be serving produce grown by Shared Legacy Farms in Elmore, for example.) He says that the cooks and farmers “are completely dependent on each other; it’s a symbiotic relationship.”

Pavlova with lemon curd.
Pavlova with lemon curd.

The catering department’s staff can accommodate everything from a small corporate retreat in the African Lodge, which overlooks a primate exhibit, to holiday parties for several hundred people that utilize several locations on the property to maximize exposure to the exhibits and to the beauty of the animals.

The zoo even has a “proposal package” and can accommodate bridal or baby showers and even the wedding itself, for a happy couple of animal lovers.

Mr. Misiura has a wide variety of suggestions and specialties to offer while planning an event, but also has “no problem going off-menu” when working with clients. The zoo recently hosted a wedding in which a bridal couple from Kenya provided traditional family recipes for the kitchen to prepare.

Mr. Misiura also works on the enormously popular fund-raiser, ZOOtoDO — “a chic, black-tie and tennis shoes affair,” as it’s described on the zoo’s website — which features tasting samples from more than 50 area chefs, live music and, of course, the ability to wander through the zoo observing and learning about the animals who reside there.

It is “the best party in Toledo,” says Mr. Misiura, who will also offer a sampling table along with the other vendors. He doesn’t yet know what he’ll serve; last year’s success — an enticing rosemary and fennel-rubbed porchetta and pork belly with chili paste and garlic — will be very difficult to top.

ZOOtoDO takes place from 6 p.m. to midnight June 20. Tickets are $150 per person (guests must be 21 or over) and include food and entertainment; they are available by going to toledozoo.org/calendar/event/148. Tickets purchased by Thursday will include a 10 percent discount.

Chef Sam with Louie the elephant’s birthday cake of polenta and peanut butter icing and decorated with fruit.
Chef Sam with Louie the elephant’s birthday cake of polenta and peanut butter icing and decorated with fruit.

The job of executive chef for a zoo is never boring; as Mr. Misiura says, “because we’re event-driven, every day is different.”

And each of these events is “fantastic,” says Andi Norman, director of public relations for the zoo. She is invariably impressed at how “very, very creative” the foods and dishes served can be.

Mr. Misiura enjoys the opportunity to use resources from the zoo’s horticulture department, which can provide herbs, for example, to serve in dishes for smaller events. And he strives to make foods that are not only delicious but beautiful, wanting to offer something that “looks amazing. It’s so nice to see something with color.”

Mr. Misiura and his wife have two sons, ages 8 and 10, who understandably think that their dad has a great job. The boys are good about trying a variety of foods, as their father loves to cook at home rather than wanting to escape from the kitchen after many hours there at work. The chef’s philosophy, no matter where he’s cooking, is simple: “Good eating should never be a trend, never be a fad.”

The Toledo Zoo was recently nominated by USA Today as a candidate to be recognized as one of the Top 10 zoos in the country. Voting ends at noon Monday. For more information or to cast your vote, go to 10best.com/awards/travel/best-us-zoo.

Contact Mary Bilyeu at mbilyeu@theblade.com or 419-724-6155 or on Twitter @foodfloozie.