It would be another hour before guests began arriving for the cocktail party, yet nervous excitement already filled the room.
Students in Utah’s inaugural Culinary Command — a six-week program that prepares veterans and active military for restaurant, hotel and food-service jobs — would be presenting their food for the first time, and much work still needed to be done: Set out the tray of smoked salmon; plate the chicken pâté and hand-made crackers; pour the vichyssoise into shot glasses and garnish with chive buds.
Besides the food preparation, this group was also bursting to tell visitors some big news. One of the world’s most accomplished chefs, Thomas Keller, founder and owner of The French Laundry and Per Se, would be the speaker — via Skype — at their 12-course graduation banquet and fundraiser on Friday. (Ticket information below.)
“We knew it was a long shot,” culinary student Cliff Hutson, an Army veteran from Riverside, Calif., said about sending the invitation to the famed chef. But Keller’s father had been a Marine and every year, Keller and his staff serve a Thanksgiving meal to veterans.
Yes, Chef! • Chef David James Robinson started Culinary Command in 2010 while living in New York’s Hudson Valley and operating a catering company, teaching cooking classes and creating the DVD series “Learn How to Cook (and eat your mistakes)!” He has cooked for presidents and prime ministers and — in 2014 — was named One of the Most Innovative Chefs in America, alongside Mario Batali and Cat Cora.
Like most Americans, he also was troubled by the high suicide rate among veterans — 22 a day, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department.
Robinson said he saw parallels between the discipline of the military and the inner workings of a professional kitchen, from the uniforms to the chain of command to the grueling 12- to 14-hour days. “A lot of returning veterans don’t see themselves sitting in a cubicle all day. A professional kitchen is a better match for their skills,” he said. “Why not retool what they already know into careers in the hospitality and restaurant industry?”
He patterned Culinary Command as an intensive 45-day “boot camp” that teaches veterans how to survive — and thrive — in a professional kitchen. Class starts each day at 7 a.m. and continues late into the evening. Lessons range from knife skills and sautéing to preparing classic sauces to grilling and baking. Students follow Robinson’s instructions to a tee, answering “Yes, Chef!” when he asks them to do something. Fortunately, he’s nothing like Gordon Ramsay of “Hell’s Kitchen,” students say.
While the 12-course graduation dinner for the public is a highlight, the group also looks forward to preparing team dinners, where two students plan, cook and serve a four-course meal — usually with a fun or unique theme — to classmates.
Robinson said the program costs $4,000-$5,000 per student to operate, depending on the number of students per session. The veterans pay nothing, as it operates entirely on donations. The largest contributor to the program has been the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, which focuses much of its efforts on veterans’ and childhood cancer causes.
More than 50 veterans went through the program while based in New York, said Robinson. And many have continued on the culinary path. One graduate enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America and became valedictorian of his class, another is a chef at a prison, while others work for caterers, fine-dining restaurants or have started food trucks. “It’s been a fairly good success rate,” said Robinson, especially considering that some “had never held a kitchen knife before.”
When Robinson’s partner took a job in Salt Lake City about a year ago, the headquarters for Culinary Command moved to Utah with the pair.
The next session runs Aug. 15 – Sept. 24. Interested applicants should visit CulinaryCommand.com to apply.
Utah Command • The inaugural Utah class includes veterans of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines who served their country in Iraq, Afghanistan and Qatar. Some have recovered from the physical injuries of war; others are still working through depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
A former infantry soldier, 44-year-old Cliff Hutson managed a restaurant and “had a passion for cooking.” But when he lost his job, hard times followed. He was homeless for a time, “couch surfing” until he could get back on his feet.
Earlier this year, Hutson did an online search for “veterans” and “culinary school” and Culinary Command came up on the screen. “I just heard a voice in my head say, ‘Why don’t you apply?’ ”
He was motivated by more than money. “I have a 16-year-old son, and I want to be a good example to him.”
For the cocktail party — the midpoint of the six-week program — Hutson chose to make chicken pâté. “I had been stationed for a time in Germany and had the opportunity to trade MREs with a Dutch soldier; that was the first time I tried pâté and I loved it.”
His version met Chef Robinson’s high standards. “The best part was when Chef tasted it, his eyes opened wide,” Hutson said. “I could tell he enjoyed it.”
No matter their situation, the Culinary Command participants say it has helped build their confidence and offers them a path for the future.
“Being around the kitchen is a good place for me,” said Army veteran Brad Smythe of Tooele, who suffers from PTSD. “The days are long, but if I can suck it up for 45 days, it will be worth it.”
Saba Wilson, of Bountiful, who serves in the Army Reserve, said she is thinking about opening a bakery; Jessica Beck, of Provo, who served in the Navy, would like to work on a cruise ship or resort; and Kurt Farnes, an Air Force veteran and father of two from Tucson, Ariz., would like to become a caterer or start a food truck.
Jarrett Lichtenstein, a Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he plans to use his culinary skills to give back to other veterans. He will be cooking and planning events for the nonprofit Labs for Liberty, in Morgan, which trains service dogs for veterans with PTSD.
“I like the tempo and the 12-hour days of being in a kitchen,” he said. “I’m not going to be the banker who works in an office downtown.”
Back to the party • Once guests start arriving, four of the students walked the room, offering appetizers; Hutson and Lichtenstein took their place behind the bar, serving wine, beer and cocktails.
The initial chaotic feeling had left the room, and the Culinary Command group exuded confidence about what lies ahead.