June 23, 2014

Discussing Veteran-Chefs With Mr. John Garcia

By: Ryan Hodros, Culinary Arts Student

For any who don’t know, my wife Tressa and I are both US Navy veterans.  We’re two of over 23 million veterans living in the Unitied states with over two million more being added to that number in the next 3-5 years.  Every single one of them has over $30,000 dollars waiting for them upon separation, and yet nearly 60% of them haven’t filed for the benefits they’ve earned.

Auguste Escoffier’s Regional Director of Admissions, Wendy Johnston, and I sat down with Mr. John Garcia to talk about the above issue and how schools like Auguste Escoffier could be the post-military education to fit many veterans as they leave service.

Mr. Garcia is a veteran of the  Vietnam War who went to college after leaving the military and got into retail and eventually owned his own store in New Mexico.  But, wracked with survivor’s guilt, he one day left the keys on the table of his office and told his store employees, “Come and get your store, I don’t want it anymore.”  He felt that he didn’t deserve what he’d earned since separating, and wanted to do his part to help his brothers and sisters-in-arms.

John Garcia

Through the work he’s done helping veterans in the United States, he’s helped create a National Monument to Vietnam Veterans in Angelfire with Dr. David Westphall.  He’s helped create a veteran leadership network through the Veterans Leadership Program, working with people like Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, Vice President Al Gore, and Senators John McCain and John Kerry.

After serving as the Cabinet Secretary of Veterans Affairs of the state of New Mexico, he was asked to become the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Inter-Governmental Affairs for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington DC.  Today he still works to better the lives of Veterans in the United States, pushing to get relief for those suffering from PTSD and other service-related disabilities.

Mr. Garcia stresses the bond and fellowship between Veterans.  “I don’t know you,” he told me when we first sat down, “But I know you.  You know what I mean?”  Which, I was startled to find out, is absolutely true.  Our services could not have been more different—Mr. Garcia was a combat veteran with the 4th Infantry in a war that happened before I was born, while I worked a desk for military intelligence, but many of the issues he talked about coping with really hit home for me.

“I couldn’t deal with going to a big college,” he said.

“I know!” I replied, excited to have someone who understands my own anxiety to talk to.  “In a sea of people you don’t know and you can’t predict what they’re going to do!”

“Many veterans can’t handle it,” he told me.  “The stress is too much.”

He discussed how veterans coming out of service are a vital asset to both the United States and the economy, from local businesses to big corporations.  “After a conflict, there’s always social change.  The discipline veterans bring home leads to that change.  They come back and take on major roles; roles in politics, roles in business, roles everywhere.”

John Garcia2 (1)

When he got home from Vietnam, Mr. Garcia struggled with finding work before being hired by a store in town bearing an enormous banner reading “WE HIRE VETS.”  The stigma attached to military service at the time led to a number of difficulties, but with this one opportunity, he and the four veterans hired along with Mr. Garcia all wound up as retail store owners within two years.

“Of the 548,000 business in Colorado,” he told me, “72,000 of them are vet-owned.  The seeds of entrepreneurship are there.”

With the small class sizes, accommodating nature, and education in entrepreneurship offered at Auguste Escoffier, it is the perfect fit for many veterans leaving service in the hopes of starting their own business.  Auguste Escoffier himself was a military man before becoming a world-renowned chef, and the “Brigade System” that he brought into the kitchen in order to give it a sense of order mirrors the chain of command seen in all modern militaries.

In my personal experience, I find that the kitchen is a natural place for people trained in the military to be comfortable.  Many of the conventions that chafe other students are second nature to the vet, from referring to your chef by his or her title, to the verbatim repeat back of orders, down to uniform inspections.

I’ve discussed the similarities and differences between the military and the kitchen in the past, and while you don’t need to be a veteran to succeed, service starts you off with a great deal of advantages.  Currently, 14% of current AESCA students are veterans, but the number should, in my opinion, be higher.

I also believe that taking part in the benefits you receive through military service is a way to internalize that this country appreciates the sacrifice of its veterans.  Many times, it’s easy to think that the country only cares about you on Veterans Day and Memorial Day, but there are a number of programs in place that prove otherwise.

One of the issues, it seems, is many veterans are unaware both of Auguste Escoffier and what it has to offer, and of the VA and its many veterans.  “If you remember everything you learned in your TAPS class [a seminar on military benefits], I’d be amazed,” Mr Garcia told me, “Most guys are just thinking about fishing.”

If you know someone in the service who is getting out, or someone who is recently separated, or someone who is a veteran and may still have benefits waiting for them, point them in the direction of Auguste Escoffier.  “The work you do in the kitchen and on the farm,” Mr. Garcia told me, “That’s healing.  I consider PTSD to be a Post Traumatic Spiritual Disorder, and the work you do [in school] helps with that.”

I’m going to end this article with something Mr. Garcia said that really hit home for me: “For those who fought for it, Freedom has a flavor the protected will never know.”  As an aspiring culinary professional and as a veteran, I really appreciate that sentiment.