ALBANY PARK — As a part-time food runner at The Winchester in Ukrainian Village, Mike Freiheit shuttles plates between the restaurant's kitchen and dining room, but it wasn't so long ago that he was the head chef at a very different kind of establishment.
From August of 2010 to May of 2011, Freiheit volunteered as a cook at the International Primate Rescue in Pretoria, South Africa.
That's right, he made food for monkeys.
Sample menu item: a 12-egg omelette bolstered by nutritional supplements, microwaved into an "amorphous blob" and cut into cubes.
"It was really gross," Freiheit said.
But not as gross as the chicken necks.
"I'd boil them and cut them in half, which made this awful cracking noise," he said.
Patty Wetli introuduces listeners to Mike Freiheit:
An illustrator by trade, Freiheit, 29, has turned his experiences — some humorous, some "gut-wrenching" — into a series of comic books, with the second installment of "Monkey Chef" on its way to the printer after reaching its $4,000 Kickstarter goal.
If the career detour into Jane Goodall territory seems an unusual choice for an artist, that was the point, he said.
"I was living in Brooklyn,and I was hating it there," said Freiheit, who was born in Missouri and raised in Colorado before landing in New York to attend the School of Visual Arts. "I felt like I needed to do something drastic."
Freiheit came across an ad for the cook's position in an email from the University of Wisconsin's National Primate Research Center, a list he subscribed to in the hopes just such an opportunity would present itself.
"I really like monkeys and primates," he said. "They have these facial features like people. You get this sense of how much depth is there."
He applied for the job, and a day later received word from the sanctuary's director that he'd been hired.
"I was terrified," said Freiheit, who had never traveled overseas. "But I also just needed to do something."
The beginnings of 'Monkey Chef'
Initially Freiheit planned to use his adventures as the basis for a book of drawings and paintings, but quickly realized he had the makings of something more.
"This had to be stories," he said.
Like the one about the time he was nearly blinded by a Mozambique spitting cobra.
"Thank God I have tiny eyes," Freiheit said of being hit in the face with venom. "If it gets in your eyes, you're blind in 10 minutes. I started crazy-washing my face. I thought, 'What am I going to do if I don't have my eyes?'"
Diary entries and photos provided the raw material for what eventually became the first volume of "Monkey Chef," a collection of four self-contained narratives that includes a depiction of Freiheit's often strained relationships with his fellow volunteers.
"I was the only American and usually the only guy. There were a lot of British women who just didn't like me. They definitely have a stigma against Americans," he said. "I was very isolated; I missed my friends so bad."
Freiheit initially was reluctant to incorporate these interactions and impressions into "Monkey Chef," according to his wife Megan Metzger, whom he courted via Skype while in South Africa.
"He's very sensitive," said Metzger, who's currently working toward her master's degree in interdisciplinary studies at DePaul University. "He would ask, 'Is it OK if I say this?'"
Metzger encouraged her husband to "be honest and be true to the story and his feelings," even when it came to describing living conditions at the sanctuary, which she experienced firsthand during a visit.
"When I went there, there was no electricity, no running water," she said. "I was hoping for something romantic, I was not expecting it to be as inadequate as it was."
Freiheit was concerned he would be criticized for writing about these deficiencies from the perspective of a "culture of privilege," according to his wife.
"I told him, 'It's OK. You were an outsider,'" she said.
On the other hand, Freiheit found the primates — mostly abandoned marmosets — endlessly intriguing.
"They live in family groups. They have their little houses and their little blocks," Freiheit said. "They're cute, sometimes in an angry old man way."
He got to know the primates so well, he was able to recognize each one, and he became particularly attached to a marmoset named Kismit, who is featured prominently in Volume 1.
"He was the grumpiest bastard. He only had one tooth," Freiheit said. "He liked me, but he'd also turn on me and bite me. He just had an attitude like a person I would hang out with."
Growing as a storyteller
The second volume of "Monkey Chef" focuses solely on Freiheit's co-worker, Michael, a refugee from Zimbabwe haunted by demons both real and imagined. Freiheit described him as "a good guy, but also really screwed-up."
Dealing with serious subject matter represents a departure from the superhero comics Freiheit read as a youngster.
"I used to love the X-Men," he said. "It was super melodramatic — a lot of it was just like a soap opera."
He didn't begin drawing his own comics until his junior year in college, and immediately felt at home with the art form.
"Independent comics are more like real-life issues," Freiheit said.
Striking the right balance between words and pictures is a constant challenge, he said.
Calling himself "not a strong enough writer," Freiheit often defaults to images when words fail. "If there's something I can draw, I do."
Metzger said her spouse isn't giving himself enough credit as a narrator.
"He's grown exponentially as a storyteller," she said. "I love this issue so much. It's a really beautiful story."
The artist at work
It takes Freiheit a year to complete each issue of "Monkey Chef."
"His process is incredible, the discipline it takes," said Metzger, who described the finished product as "almost cinematic."
Each illustration is hand-drawn: "I like the tactile feeling of it, of having whatever's going on in my hand and brain at the same time," he said.
In the same low-tech vein, "Monkey Chef" is not available in digital form.
"For me, this is a book. Making it is more special to have this object," said Freiheit, who considers himself part of the artisan movement. "You have a piece of paper in your face and you have to engage with it."
Freiheit, who makes his art in the Albany Park apartment he shares with Metzger, said he is inspired by the city's thriving comics scene.
"Per capita, there's a crazy amount of comics shops here," said Freiheit. "And everyone's so friendly."
Not just monkeying around
With the first issue of "Monkey Chef" well-received by readers and the second volume under his belt, Freiheit is now weighing how to continue the story.
"I don't even know when it's going to end," he said. "When it feels right, I'll know when it's done."
Ultimately Freiheit said would like for the series to provoke a greater understanding "about how we relate to animals and in a larger sense, the planet itself."
That's an ambitious goal for a guy who started this journey cracking eggs and chicken necks.
Metzger, for one, isn't surprised by the more thoughtful turn "Monkey Chef" has taken.
Freiheit's time in South Africa "opened his eyes to a lot of different experiences," she said. "He learned about himself and what he was capable of."