Zoo chef, nutritionist prep healthy cake for Packy's party

Chef Paul Bosch and nutritionist Matt Brooks are creating Packy’s 51st birthday cake

Paul Bosch, the Oregon Zoo's new executive chef, may have worked for Elephants Delicatessen before, but he's never cooked for an actual elephant — until now.

"I'm really looking forward to making Packy's 51st birthday cake," Bosch said. "It's always a little intimidating to cook for a celebrity, but we're trying some new things this year, and I think he's going to like it."

Elephantastic, featuring Packy's 51st birthday party, takes place Sunday, April 14, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is free with zoo admission. Birthday cake for human party guests will be served at noon, courtesy of Lamb's Wilsonville Market. Packy receives his cake at 2 p.m., and visitors can join in singing a birthday song to the prestigious pachyderm as he chows down. For more information, visit oregonzoo.org/events.

Bosch says he won't take offense if Packy doesn't take time to savor his offering. The cake — a 60-pound hay-based concoction, filled with veggies and topped with cream-cheese frosting and shaved coconut — usually gets gobbled up pretty quickly.

The chef has been working with zoo nutritionist Matt Brooks to create a cake that will be nutritionally healthy, flavorful and fun for Packy, as well as aesthetically pleasing. The elephantine list of ingredients gives an idea of what goes into the project:

  • 8 pounds of low-fat cream cheese
  • 2 pounds of softened unsalted butter
  • 2 pounds of shaved coconut
  • 5 whole coconuts
  • 4 pounds of raisins
  • 2 pounds of parsnips
  • 1 pound of sweet potatoes
  • 3 pounds of carrots
  • 4 pounds of bananas
  • 9 pounds of bamboo
  • 25 pounds orchard grass hay.

The cake's "candles" will be bamboo — a browse given to the elephants on a regular basis — with carrot-stick "flames."

Dr. Brooks said he and Bosch are tailoring Packy's cake for the tastes and nutritional needs of the oldest male Asian elephant in North America.

"Packy is extraordinarily healthy for his age, and our goal is to keep him that way," Brooks said. "My job as the nutritionist is to make healthy choices when choosing the actual ingredients so it doesn't all go to Packy's waistline. It's OK for him to have a special treat now and then — and we've chosen some of his favorite ingredients — but we'll be using low-fat cream cheese for the frosting, for example, and unsweetened natural shaved coconut."

And if eight pounds of cream cheese — low fat or otherwise — sounds like a lot, keep in mind that Packy weighs about 12,500 pounds.

"For a person weighing 150 pounds that would be the equivalent of around three tablespoons," Bosch said.

One ingredient from past Packy cakes that is no longer in the mix: peanut butter. "Packy just doesn't like it," Brooks said. "He used to stomp his cakes when they put peanut butter on them, but now he devours them."

Brooks, who became the zoo's nutritionist in October, has made a career of knowing what foods animals want and need. After earning a bachelor's degree in animal science from Cornell University, he worked as a nutrition laboratory technician and later a nutrition keeper at the Fort Worth Zoo. A master's degree in nutrition at Texas A&M followed, then a Ph.D. in ruminant nutrition from the University of Missouri, where Brooks examined protein and carbohydrate digestion in cattle and mule deer, with the goal of improving gut health in zoo animals. He comes to Portland from a postdoctoral fellowship in mineral nutrition at North Carolina State University.

The South Carolina native says he found his calling early. "I've wanted to work in a zoo ever since the fifth grade, when I had my first overnight visit at the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina," Brooks says.

Bosch, too, has enjoyed his transition to the zoo world.

"I've met a lot of interesting people who are so passionate about the work they do for animals and wildlife," Bosch said. "I've also had a chance to see a baby elephant, which is pretty amazing. But mainly, I'm just having fun providing great food for our zoo visitors."

The Oregon Zoo hired Bosch as its executive chef last fall after a long and competitive search. Originally from Arlington Heights, Ill., Bosch graduated from Southern Illinois University with a degree in food and nutrition before going on to study at the Culinary Institute of America. Before joining the zoo, he served as executive chef for Mount Hood's Resort at the Mountain, restaurant chef at Skamania Lodge, executive chef at the Southwest Washington Medical Center, and commissary manager for Elephants Delicatessen.