The official purpose of observing Veterans Day as a national public holiday is to honor military veterans who have served in the United States Armed Forces. The foundation of this day is imbued in, as Peggy Noonan so famously stated in her December 1998 speech, “pride in what a country stands for and was founded on, the full-throated expression of that love and that pride.” Perhaps no other group of Americans can attest to the sense of pride it takes to step up and defend a nation. Engrained into their hearts from the moment they make the choice to enlist, veterans tether the very fabric of America itself, freedom, to those of us who cherish it.
Some soldiers see action and live to tell the tale, while others are lost to us in faraway places, never knowing the letters from home are the last they will read. A world of nations has veterans to thank for so much more than wartime victories – they create infrastructure and stabilize hostile regions, charge into rescue and recovery missions, each individual’s courage infused with the force of many.
They often return to our shores to brave new challenges. When their time on active duty comes to a close, they must create new lives. One commonality between most veterans is a hard-core work ethic, something with which they find a good match in the restaurant business. From the battlefield to the hospitality industry, they soldier on to a new kind of service, bringing leadership skills to the kitchens they now call home. Read on to meet veteran chefs from around the nation.
Justin Ferguson, BRQ Restaurant, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Justin Ferguson of BRQ Restaurant was in college when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. He immediately dropped out of school to join the military and enlisted in the Army, becoming a Scout and in the infantry battalion. “I wanted to serve, so I asked where I could go to get deployed and they sent me to Germany,” said Ferguson, who stayed there for four months before he left for Iraq at the beginning of the war, going from a private to sergeant by the time he returned home. “I was there for almost 18 months and served with some great guys and lost some good friends.”
Ferguson served on the quick readiness force, every day out on the roads before the days when vehicles were armored to the hilt when bolted plates and sandbags on the floorboards were all there was to shield them from the constant hits by IEDs, back when the enemy could shoot a .22 through the door. “When you are 20 and 21 years old, you feel like nothing can go wrong and nothing can stop you, plus when you’re serving in the military during wartime, you do not have a choice but fight every day to live,” said Ferguson, who focused everything in his power on going home to his family. “It was a hard and tough time but that’s just how we lived every day.”
For one three-month period, Ferguson slept outside in what’s now the Green Zone along the exterior of an old theater. It was his home for those 90 days, just part of moving around from area to area. “It was a very unique experience, sometimes scary, but the adrenaline made it exciting and we knew we were doing something for a greater cause than ourselves,” said Ferguson, whose grandfather served in WWII which instilled in him a desire to do his part when called. “I didn’t need to figure out what to do with my life – I wanted to fight for my country.”
Fast forward, Ferguson says, to a time when everyone was getting out of the military because so many people had joined after 9/11. There was a waiting list for jobs in law enforcement. He began working in a restaurant, something he’d done years before. Despite the level of Ferguson’s skills perfected overseas, he started out as a dishwasher. “I needed a job, so I put myself through school and got into management,” said Ferguson, who, by the time he opened BRQ had helped open 10 restaurants. “I moved back to Louisiana to be close to family, and we have just opened our second BRQ location in Denham Springs, in addition to the Jefferson flagship restaurant.”
While the danger level may have changed, the hours and workload have not in the time since Ferguson left the military and opened his own restaurants. “It’s pretty much seven days a week for the last 12 years learning, but without the military, I wouldn’t have the stamina or drive to do this,” he said. You just don’t take no for an answer, you don’t quit, and you know you just have to make this work because everything is on the line.”
Barbecue and seafood are the focus of Ferguson’s restaurants but the fare is elevated in an unpretentious, scrumptious way as only a Louisiana native can do. “Barbecue is a memory everyone grew up smelling and eating and Louisiana has a strong seafood heritage, so sourcing and how we much we care makes a difference,” said Ferguson, who abides an “everything fresh, nothing frozen” mantra for cooking. “There is a balance of what local people can produce and what we buy in bulk because I can wipe everyone out buying all the local okra or cucumber.”
Ferguson, a true southern gentleman, insists his guests feel immediately comfortable upon sitting down. He does this by providing his guests with house-fried chips on the tables. His barbecue is competition-style rubbed and smoked and he offers four sauces on the side to represent each region of barbecue, including his own Louisiana spicy sauce. “We take barbecue and step it up, but while BRQ is comfy and family-oriented, we are a full-service restaurant,” he said. “We have all Gulf and local fish so we are really supporting our economy here by buying everything right in Louisiana.”
The chef incorporates a combination of Cajun and Creole techniques into his sides and entrees and he makes his own Creole seasoning with different blends of spices, like garlic and cayenne, and fresh herbs, aligned with the food culture he grew up eating. “We can put a ham hock in anything and get that smoky, porky goodness with bold flavors, spices, and salt – we are not into bland food,” he said. “We cook with a lot of love, the way our grandparents did.”
He marries his experience in high-end restaurants with that upbringing and the resulting dishes like barbecue octopus, pork tamales and brunch menu keeps the restaurants packed. Guests love his poached eggs on a biscuit with pulled pork, Hollandaise, and fried potatoes. “We make it fun, even down to the desserts – each slice of our carrot cake which we make in-house weighs eight pounds because the cake weighs more than 40 pounds, so one slice is good for the whole table.”
Branden Pegg, Ocean Prime, Indianapolis, Indiana
Chef Branden Pegg of the sublime Ocean Prime in Indianapolis served in the United States Air Force from 1999-2006. Like so many soldiers, his tireless work ethic led him to quickly rise through the ranks of the restaurant business to a leadership role. He began working at Ocean Prime Indianapolis as sauté cook in 2014 and within two years, he became the executive chef. Pegg can trace his culinary dreams back to his teenage years when he worked as a cook at a local root beer and hot dog stand in his hometown of Richmond, Indiana. In the Air Force, he rediscovered a love of cooking. The son of a retired Army soldier and nephew of his uncle who retired from the Navy, Pegg started cooking while in the service. Pegg honed his culinary inspiration from Omaha in the middle of America to Qatar to Alaska and his cuisine reflects those flavors.
“I still cook king salmon and halibut today from how I learned to do so during my time in Alaska. In fact the other day we did a little mushroom dish to replicate what we used to do there, kicking it up a little bit with mushrooms and roasted tomato ragu with king salmon,” said Pegg, who calls the fennel fronds and parsley salad with shaved red onion and vinaigrette “adding a little Christmas to a dish.”
The first thing Pegg learned in the military that extends to his kitchen is don’t be late. He admits even when he tries to slow it down, he’s still ten minutes early. It’s one reason he rose to the position of executive chef in such a short time and why his staff functions like a team. “The management chefs would come in and I would already be at work, so they were like, ‘Oh, you’re already here’, so I have brought those military core values to my associates at Ocean Prime,” said Pegg. “More than anything though is our attention to detail, and every night I am expediting, looking at every dish in the window so every steak is cooked right, every side dish has a spoon and every salad dressing is placed with a doily, not just on a plate.”
Ocean Prime is famous for Pegg’s Sunday surf-and-turf, but appetizers that keep diners coming back time and again include a smoking shellfish tower, Sonoma goat cheese ravioli with Golden Oak mushrooms, and butter-poached lobster bisque. Blackened snapper, halibut, tuna, grouper, and twin lobster tails keep Pegg busy crafting savory garnishes like corn spoon bread, black truffle mac and cheese, and jalapeño au gratin to go with them.
Pegg says the little things may seem like overkill, but in the military, it’s critical in training soldiers for real life and death situations they could face. In basic training, a drill instructor haranguing recruits to make the bed is essential to instill attention to detail later on, which Pegg learned firsthand in Alaska. “Aside from serving food, one of my jobs was installing phone lines in Alaska years ago was installing a new 911 system, which was actually one of the highest pressure jobs because of the gravity of it, so in my kitchen I also encourage my staff to slow down and not panic because I’ve been through much more stressful situations,” said Pegg, whose grandfather passed away not long ago and was laid to rest with military honors.
“I would love to have more veterans in the kitchen and am honored when veterans come into Ocean Prime,” he said. “I didn’t think of this when I joined at the time, but there are plenty of culinary jobs that reflect similar things to what we learned in the military.”
Christopher Czarnecki, The Joel Palmer House, Dayton, Oregon
Christopher Czarnecki goes to work every in one of Oregon’s most beautiful and historic homes, The Joel Palmer House Restaurant. Here, Czarnecki, an avowed mushroom impresario, loves to wow diners with fungi-inspired cuisine in the middle of wine country (the wine list’s 600-plus selections are Oregon vintages. Czarnecki echoes Pegg in that his military experience transfers to the kitchen because of what he learned, and endured.
“Being deployed toughens you up, tolerating the heat and stressful environments, so in the case of difficult guests or employee issues, I’m prepared for not just being a chef but being a boss and business owner,” said Czarnecki, whose family instilled his can-do attitude – he is a fourth generation restaurateur and chef who joined the family restaurant business upon returning home from his service in the Army in 2006. “I wear my combat patch on my chef coat and every once in a while, we will get a veteran who comes in and recognize it, including a commanding general who came knocking on the kitchen door, who happened to be my commander’s commander.”
One of the highlights of Czarnecki’s time at Joel Palmer House was during a private party of nearly two dozen people at which there were 26 stars of retired military service members in attendance. He also enjoys partnering with other veteran-owned businesses, like local winery Dauntless Wine Cellars. “They are all Marines, but I won’t hold that against them,” jokes Czarnecki, who is excited about an upcoming reunion of soldiers from Task Force 1/7.
While Czarnecki makes frequent changes to his menu according to mushroom availability, removing some items would cause a diner revolt, including his grandfather’s mushroom soup which they have served for 70 years and Heidi’s three-mushroom tart, which has its own 40-year history. The Jack’s wild mushroom risotto with foie gras, pan seared with candy cap mushrooms, caramelized onion, and Pinot gelée is a revelation for the crossover fandom of foie and fungi.
“Rather than being a steakhouse or Italian restaurant, I like to say we are a mushroom restaurant and we figure out how to integrate everything with mushrooms and that is our hook,” said Czarnecki, whose beef Stroganoff also has a following. “We even do a candy cap mushroom crème brûlée – while it may seem crazy to do mushrooms for dessert, these somewhat bitter mushrooms come alive on the palate when we add the sugar.”Czarnecki is currently working on a seasonal specialty Kobe steak with mushrooms in the fridge, encrusted in butter to dry age for several days.
James Carpenter, Claude’s, Southampton, New York
James Carpenter served in the US Navy on the USS Midway, Carrier Vessel 41, based in Yokosuka, Japan – the ship itself is one of the most historic of her class, the last of the diesel carriers. As a cook for thousands of shipmates, Carpenter says he still runs a tight ship at Claude’s at the Southampton Inn, even 20 years removed from his time in the military. For Carpenter, the structure and chain of command is the backbone of the military and in a professional kitchen.
“From sous chefs and line cooks and dishwashers, everything flows similarly to the hierarchy in the military and I’m very grateful I received that training early on in my career as stepping stone,” said Carpenter, who remembers fondly seeing exotic places while in the service. “I spent the first part of my stints in the military in the Philippines and Korea and this was back when Asian food was novel and before it was mainstream dining.”
Carpenter relishes the sense of camaraderie in the kitchen – though it is a reminder that in the military, your life can depend on the person next to you. He attended Johnson and Wales University right out of the military and worked for big hotels and organizations. Along his journey, Carpenter continues to be an uplifting presence among his fellow veterans, including locals who have been in all branches of the service, often recognized throughout Long Island by hats or emblems that indicate duty stations. Carpenter says it is common for veterans to talk about the kind of experiences they had, where they were stationed and if each other saw any action. One of the largest veterans’ hospitals is in Carpenter’s backyard, Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which provides health care services to Veterans in Long Island and surrounding areas.Continue Reading