I'm 28 years old, and I'm originally from Beaumont, Texas. I enlisted in the Navy in 2006, when I had just gotten out of college and wanted a more hands-on job. I got on a ship and was cooking for 2,000 people when the opportunity came out to work on an Admiral's staff, I thought, yeah, that would be cool. I tried it out, and I've been in love with it ever since.
My whole family, as far back as I can remember, has dealt with food service. My grandparents owned a cafe and they passed that down to my mom, my dad and my uncle owned a liquor store for 30 years, my uncle makes his own salad dressing for the cafe, and my grandpa is from Sicily—he started the Texas Coffee Company which is also a dry spice company as well. I don't want to say it's "in the blood," but it's something that we just gravitate to.
I requested to work in food specifically when I enlisted. I didn't do too well on my test, but I think that actually kind of helped. It's one of those jobs that people don't think you have to have a lot of intellectual skill for—cooking—but at the end of the day, you do. When you stand around a stove, you've got to know how stuff works. I didn't have any cooking experience prior to that. Not at all. I worked a couple of summers at my grandparents' cafe, my mom's cafe, but it wasn't anything.
I didn't know what to expect [when I joined the Admiral's staff]. Whenever you go to an Admiral's staff you can either be in the flag mess—which is working at the headquarters and you're on a team of anywhere from one to seven, eight, or nine—or you can be an Enlisted Aide, which is what I am now, and that means that you're actually doing detail at the Admiral's house. That's more intimate, you're working way more closely with the family. At the flag mess, you're cooking for a lot more people, whereas at the house, you're doing these personal dinners, not only for the family, but for the dignitaries, so the food quality shoots up a lot more. I wasn't expecting that—going from a ship of 2,000 to an Admiral's quarters.
For cooks in the Navy, there are many different areas where they're detailed. When I say detailed, I mean there are different areas where the Navy needs you. There are cooks in the White House, cooks in the Pentagon, cooks running around the ships. They're just everywhere. But as far as the travelling I've done, there was one job I had in Hawaii, then in Italy with an Admiral. Whatever the boss needed on the road, that's what we were there for.
It's a tight community—there aren't too many of us in the scheme of things, but you don't have to stick with one Admiral. There are some great, great, great ones out there, and all of them are great to work with, so you're really lucky wherever you go. It depends on what you want, too. Do you want to go to Italy? Do you want to go to Japan?
The Admirals all have different diets. Some of them like to eat very healthy; some of them don't really care too much about all that. But it varies—the best way I can put it, what my dad said, is that they're human beings just like us: they put their pants on one leg at a time.
My Admiral right now is great—he kind of lets us have free reign. At least once a month, sometimes twice, I've been taking a bus from Washington, DC to New York to stage at ACME. They do a lot of fermentation, so I've been taking what they did and fermenting a lot of stuff. We make our own beer here. Kombucha, pickles, fermented fennel. I'm trying to get into foraging and all of that stuff, but it's kind of hard to do in DC. These Admirals, a lot of them have never seen that kind of food in the military. I think the military is known for mass feeding and not for fine dining.
There is entertaining that goes on usually once or twice a month. We'll do a lot of things planned into the budget—if it's a personal dinner, if it's an official dinner, what the Admiral wants to spend. Then we break that up into how many courses can we do. Usually we'll do five or six courses, nothing too crazy. Recently, we had one of the governors come over and we did a smoked pork with an apple and celery granita, and we put some microshoots on there.
And then, of course, I take a few cues from the restaurant [ACME]. It's something that I sought out. Last September, I emailed a few restaurants in New York, and Joe Yardley, emailed me back and said I could come meet him. I was helping out another chef, and I came through the house for dinner and met him. It was so easy—I thought it was going to be a lot harder to break into than that.
They're always trying to help me learn and everything. It's still a stage, they'll tell me when I'm fucking up and shit, but it's cool that they took that chance. This is Mads Refslund, who was a Michelin-starred chef in Copenhagen, and now he's helping a military chef who doesn't know anything that they know.
Refslund is from Copenhagen, and they do foraging there and for the restaurant here. Cattails and sorrel and all of that, stuff that I've never worked with before. And it's really cool because you think about these things like, I wonder how that tastes, and then you taste it and it's not what you imagined. There's not something that I don't learn every time I go there—it really is a blessing.
I kind of got on this tip because I went to the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen last year and it just kind of kicked me in the head. I don't know who was talking or what they were talking about, but the whole experience—noma's philosophy is let's source our ingredients from where we are. I started thinking about the Navy and everything, and if there's an Enlisted Aide in Japan, why can't we email a Japanese restaurant and say, "Hey, can we we learn from what you're doing?" Or, "Can we learn how to make soba noodles?" Why aren't we taking a look around the world to learn? I keep hearing about the food in South America, Central America, Mexico, Peru, Brazil.
Next, I want to travel to southern Italy—Calabria, in particular. It's a beautiful area, the most un-industrialized part of Italy—think of all the culinary resources available. I have a couple of stages lined up in Copenhagen, and I'm really looking forward to them. If that can open a door to go to another place, so be it.
Things could change in a few years, but right now, my enlistment has been great, and treats me very, very well. Right now, I wouldn't give it up for anything.
As told to Hilary Pollack