How a U.S. Marine Becomes a Chef
Can you think of the single best meal you have ever had in your life?
If that is too challenging, maybe just one of your favorite dining experiences in general?
If even that is too taxing on the memory, maybe just a single important meal that was special to you.
For me, all of these questions are impossible. I am in love with food. I have never loved any woman, any friend, or anything in my life more than I have in my fiery and bewitching affair with the ingredients I have been so lucky to taste, share, and learn from.
But how did a jarhead from Ames, Iowa, ever learn to give a fuck about cooking?
The United States Marine Corps, baby.
Accidentally discovering the world of food
Now that might sound a little odd, but having traveled to every continent on earth except for Antarctica and South America while on the government’s dime offered me the unique experience of being exposed to all manner of cultures.
I discovered Americana culinary traditions in Arizona, heavy in grease, butter, and cilantro. Japanese “izakaya’s” revealed to me the outrageously savory sesame-seared octopus and tepenyaki cutlets in Kitanakagusuku, Okinawa. Hispanic creations from Paella de Mar in Puerto Rico to the local cervezeria’s Iberico salchichon in Madrid, Spain continue to dominant my pursuit to explore uses of chilies and lime.
Every step of the way, it baffled me. Every time I thought it was some form of sorcery that these people could make such complex transliterations of flavors from simple, earth-grown herbs and meats into dishes of unscrupulous divinity to the taste buds, heart, and spirit of a man. But they did, and I demanded to know how.
Which flavor of crayon goes best with sriracha?
The Marine Corps might seem anything but cultured. It might seem heavy handed, stupid, and violent. And it is, you would be correct, but it is also a service branch of discipline, and of time-honored tradition. We are also a people of exceptional cunning, and learning on the move in order to deal with our tiny defense budget and expeditionary nature.
The Corps taught me to be fearlessly curious, to learn with expedience, and to test my own limits for the sake of self-improvement. And as it turns out, this is the same set of principles that cooks must possess to be successful in any number of kitchens.
One must keep up on trends, learn new techniques that may have never been attempted before, and work merciless hours in unsettling heat above stove-tops and kitchen ranges. Most importantly, one has to earn- and know- their place in the ranks.
The kitchen is a crucible of character
I think of course that everyone should at some point work in a kitchen or in food service, as the experience is invaluable. Teamwork, work ethic, integrity, judgment, ingenuity, tact, and dedication are but a few of the principles that the kitchen will test you on every single day, every single shift.
And it will test your devotion to your passion. How much are you willing to spend towards failure in hopes of eventual success? For me, it was over $400 on a panache of trout and scallop with habanero-infused butter and guacamole. It was over $200 on a lime panna cotta with almond foam served with a blueberry cabernet reduction.
I honestly don’t even know what I spent trying to learn the correct way to create my favorite miso ramen that I crave every night from Uruma, Okinawa.
And I’m still a novice. I am not a head chef, I am not a Michellin-star holder, I am not even on the radar of culinary writers. I am just a cook among cooks. But the difference is, I love it.
My experiences in the Corps led me to constantly search for new foods, new flavors, new methods, and new traditions. I grew a profound respect for world cultures. I started studying, adapting, and honing my skills to each thing I found curious or challenging the new culinary world I found myself in.
If it hadn’t been for the Corps, I never would have cooked.
Fun cooking stories? Worst meal you’ve ever had in the military? Think our horoscopes might be compatible? Comment below.