Food Job: Zoo Chef

Dining at the Denver Zoo

A student in my FOOD JOBS class will graduate in a few weeks. She told the class she loves animals and had previously considered becoming a veterinarian. “I just like to be around animals,” she sighed.

She even considered starting a business developing a new food recipe for her favorite labrador and other large dogs. Shaking her head sadly, she decided she didn’t have enough capital to get started.

I suggested she might enjoy working at a zoo — as a chef — and her whole body lit up! Here’s a little information about getting started.

Under the general classification of zoos, we can group aquarium chefs and chefs for “beasts-behind-bars,”authentic wildlife habitats. And would it be too great a stretch to add chefs for botanical gardens too? All these places attract thousands of visitors and they all need to be fed.

There are two categories of chefs who work at zoos: those, who are responsible for feeding the animals, (and fish, birds and plants), and those, who feed the visitors.

Zoo animal feeders must at a minimum have a high school diploma, but most have bachelor’s degrees in animal sciences or biology. Many have postgraduate degrees as well.

Chefs for large and small people cook for the zoo staff, thousands of school children and many thousands of visitors, volunteers and distinguished guests, who attend black-tie fund-raising dinners. These executive chefs will almost certainly have a degree from a culinary school.

The food service duties may include self-service cafeterias, informal dining rooms and provisioning the food carts that are dotted about the area. Though hot dogs and lemonade are always popular, there are plenty of opportunities for other specialties too. For innovative ideas to use as a springboard, check into the entrepreneurs who are selling everything from tacos to rice pudding from food trucks.

Zoo chefs earn an average about $43,000 a year, plus perhaps overtime, shift differentials, holiday pay, and other factors. Salaries will, of course, vary widely depending on the part of the country where the facility is located and the prestige of the zoo itself.

Matters of Fact

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo was established on March 2, 1889, by an Act of Congress for “the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people.” Today, the National Zoo exhibits living animal and plant collections, and conducts research in conservation biology and reproductive science. Its mission is to provide leadership in animal care, science, education, and sustainability.

Each year, more than 2 million people visit the National Zoo’s 163-acre park in the heart of Washington, D.C., to learn about the 2,000 animals representing nearly 400 species.

The National Zoo maintains a staff of 250 between the Rock Creek and Front Royal, Virginia, facilities, including animal caretakers, veterinarians and scientists. More than 100 facilities maintenance staff and 30 police officers are assigned to the Zoo.