December 28, 2020
Bronx Zoo’s Top Chef
- as seen by -Julie Larsen Maher
Chefs are always trying new things. Jennifer Guzman is one of them.
Jen graduated from SUNY Cobleskill with Bachelor of Business Administration for Culinary Arts Management and came to WCS’s Bronx Zoo with 11 years of industry experience. She started at the zoo as a sous chef, then moved into the role of kitchen manager, and now holds the position of Executive Chef of the Bronx Zoo.
Jen works hard to create perfect and people-pleasing food. I asked our chef to share some insight from her culinary career at the zoo.
JLM: What skills do you need to be a chef at the Bronx Zoo?
JG: Patience and organization are good skills as I am responsible for all the eateries and kiosks at the zoo as well as our catered events that often occur simultaneously. Creativity is another. There are many things to consider right now with COVID. I need to make foods that are fast to cook and fun to eat while keeping the operation safe and moving, including any lines of guests.
JLM: What is a chef’s most important tool at the Bronx Zoo?
JG: The zoo’s great restaurant staff is my most valuable tool. With the volume we have here at the zoo, operating successful quick service restaurants requires a strong staff. And almost everyone here is crossed-trained which is vital.
JLM: Where do your ideas come from?
JG: I often start by thinking like I am cooking for my own family and making something they would enjoy.
JLM: How do you create foods for seasonal events like Bronx Zoo’s Holiday Lights?
JG: I have to consider our zoo guests and create something that is easy for them to eat and drink while being quick for my staff to cook. One solution I found is empanadas. I tested several kinds of empanadas with my staff including chicken, jalapeno, and sweet potato with a plan to serve them at Holiday Lights. I established how long it took to prep them and how fast we could pick up orders. So far, we have made about 10,000 empanadas with the three different fillings.
JLM: What’s your favorite dish to prepare at the Bronx Zoo?
JG: Soup! It is a good comfort food. I can get creative with the ingredients when I have something interesting like cauliflower, mushrooms, or some new fruit. And occasionally, I make a fun family meal for staff. No one says “no” to tacos.
JLM: What big projects are you working on for the future dining experiences at the Bronx Zoo?
JG: We are working on increasing our standards to include more sustainable and “green” products while focusing on local items. We currently use New Jersey tomatoes for our pizza sauce, local Bronx-made pizza dough, and grass-fed beef I use for our brown rice bowls in our staff dining room. This aligns with our WCS food and retail commitment to strive to be organic, local, fresh, and humane, in regard to purchasing directly from the farmer and preferably from those using agricultural practices that do not degrade the health of our ocean and watersheds. I’m also starting to plan a menu for next year’s Holiday Lights by looking at this year’s successes and some new trends.
JLM: Can you share a recipe for a food item that people can get when they visit the Bronx Zoo and make at home?
JG: This jalapeno empanada recipe is a little time consuming but very delicious. It can be deep fried or air fried, and it can also be used as a jalapeno popper filling.
1 lb Jalapenos, blistered and chopped
Olive Oil, to coat
Salt and Pepper, to coat
4 cups Cream Cheese, softened
1 cup Sour Cream
1 cup Cheddar Cheese, shredded
1 1/2 tablespoons Kosher Salt
1 teaspoon Cracked Pepper
10 Empanada Discs, thawed
ROASTED JALAPENOS: Toss all jalapenos with oil, salt, and pepper. Broil the jalapenos until they are blistered. Let cool, trim tops, and remove seeds. Roughly small dice all jalapenos.
FILLING: Pull cream cheese out of refrigerator and let sit for about 30 minutes. Once cream cheese is soft enough to work with add three-quarters of cooked jalapenos and blend (food processor is fine) until smooth. Transfer mixture into a bowl and fold in the remaining ingredients until evenly mixed.
FILL EMPANADAS: Place 2 ounces of filling in the center of a thawed empanada dough disc. Fold the empanada in half, then crimp the edges with a fork on both sides to hold together. If the shell starts to dry out, add some water to the edges to help them stick.
COOKING: Deep fry at 3500 degrees for four minutes. The outside shell should turn golden brown. Remove from oil and pat dry with a paper towel. Serve warm. As an alternative to deep frying, air fry them at 4000 degrees for six minutes.