Working on The Chew and with Rachael Ray means I am lucky enough to meet some really amazing chefs – Michael Symon, Carla Hall, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and Daisy Martinez are the first to come to mind (besides Rach herself, of course). But there are many others, from courageous Iron Chefs to innovative Next Food Network stars. But the other day, I met some of the most courageous, innovative chefs ever – and I’ll swear to that even though I’ve never sampled a single one of their recipes.
My friend Sian is the resident primatologist at the DuMond Conservancy, a non-profit organization that houses confiscated and retired laboratory primates. In turn, these primates provide a unique resource for any student interested in learning more about our closest living relatives. And educational stuff aside, believe me when I say there is nothing cuter than a perfect little family of owl monkeys – one family is named “The Fuzzies,” how cute is that? – all staring out at you with the most impossibly enormous eyes. Many are blind, their sight sacrificed for humans.
The DuMond Conservancy is different from the typical zoo in other ways too. Life in the subtropical South Florida climate means no primate is forced to bunk indoors. Some roam free in over 4-acres of forest, and the others get to live in sprawling outdoor enclosures that incorporate hefty chunks of the natural environment.
But these primates eat hefty chunks of the natural environment too – namely fruits and vegetables, and each creature requires a very specific diet. Preparation is a serious time commitment, and it’s all done in a cramped kitchen with ants on the ceiling, peeling floors, and an overtaxed, wheezing refrigerator.
Times have been tough for everyone, especially in South Florida, and Sian and the conservancy aren’t getting the donations of fruit and vegetables they’ve come to depend on to keep everyone furry fed. With more of Sian’s budget going to food, great volunteers have become more important to the Monkey Kitchen than ever, but great volunteers have become tough to find…
Tough to find until the students from Southridge High’s Exceptional Student Program put just the right number of cooks in the kitchen. These students, all mentally disabled to varying degrees, were simply expected to keep things tidy, chop up greens, and lend a hand with primate food staples like “monkey cakes,” mushy, bland looking things. One of the girls I really got a chance to talk to, Michelle, even had to sit-out on the green chopping – her mother didn’t feel comfortable with her using knives.
Molly Dodge (volunteer coordinator) & Southbridge Students,
Michelle Fonseca, Katrina Saavedra & Me!
But instead of churning out monkey Fast Food, these young cooks rolled up their sleeves Rachael-Ray-Style (or RRS as Rach might say), made themselves at home in the kitchen (even with the ants on the ceiling), and invented their own brand of four-star Monkey Cuisine. They experimented, tinkered and sampled, tested and perfected, and conducted taste tests with their monkey customers. Michelle picked up a chef’s knife for the first time, and learned to slice and dice like a pro, and in almost no time, they had created their own version of 30-Minute Meals. Suddenly, every species in the Conservancy had a whole menu to choose from. And even if you’d eaten as many monkey cakes as these monkeys had, you couldn’t appreciate the change and variety as much as they did. The owl monkeys – even the blind ones – now bound to the edges of their enclosures to greet their favorite chefs in a blur, and devour each new recipe. That super cute owl monkeys, The Fuzzies, were so thrilled at experiencing basil for the first time, that they almost literally took a bath in it, rubbing it all over their fur. This kind of “fur rubbing” behavior is something certain monkeys do in the wild, but it had never been seen in owl monkey’s before. It’s the kind of discovery that could end up in one of Sian’s scientific journal articles one day, all thanks to a little creative cooking, and some expert help from chef’s, Michelle Fonseca, Katrina Saavedra, Lizzy Bucalo, Kennedy Williams and volunteer coordinator, Molly Dodge.
Here are a few of the top recipes of The Fuzzies and their other owl monkey pals below, so you can check them out. Some sound good enough to make my own primate tummy growl…
4 ripe Avocadoes
2 Bell Peppers
-Halve avocadoes and scoop out. Dice tomatoes, peppers and cilantro. Mix contents.
2 Sweet Potatoes
-Chop sweet potatoes. Dice a handful of basil and sage leaves. Mix ingredients in a microwavable bowl. Add ¼ cup of water. Cover loosely. Microwave on high for 4 minutes. Let cool. Shakes contents.
Kettle Corn Popcorn
-Spoon out a dollop of peanut butter. Roll the peanut butter in popcorn and form a ball.
If you’d like to learn more about the DuMond Conservancy, or lend you support, you can visit their website: http://www.dumondconservancy.org. And please, if you live in South Florida and you can swing it, stop by and lend the tasty kind of support you can find in your garden or local supermarket.
And stay tuned! I’m hoping to give the Monkey Kitchen a totally fun, totally functional Kitchen Fix sometime very soon!
Here is the latest video I took of Squirrel Monkeys in the Rainforest preserve at Monkey Jungle/DuMond Conservancy
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