Communities

From Military Service to Dinner Service

by Veronica Meewes

November 10, 2014
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

It may not seem obvious to those outside the restaurant industry, but the professional kitchen may be one of the most appealing opportunities for American military veterans transitioning back to civilian life today. Just ask one of the veterans studying at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts (AESCA), who comprise 16 percent of the student population there.

“I find that the kitchen is a natural place for people trained in the military to be comfortable,” says AESCA student Ryan Hodros, a former Navy intelligence officer stationed in Hawaii from 2006 to 2012*. “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.”

Michel Escoffier sitting at the Escoffier Museum in Southern France in front of a photo of his great-grandfather

Although Hodros began his education in the engineering program at the University of Colorado Boulder when he first returned home, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a food journalist by enrolling in Escoffier’s program. He’s currently working as the beer writer at a Denver-based magazine and working toward graduating from the culinary arts program in May. His wife Tressa, also a veteran, completed Escoffier’s pastry program this spring and is now the assistant pastry chef at Denver’s Guard and Grace restaurant.

In addition to picking up on the similarities of the military and professional kitchen, from precision to top-down management, AESCA is accredited by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, which allows veterans to use the GI Bill to pay for tuition, and each campus features an honor wall with framed photographs of veteran alumni. In the past three years, veteran involvement has steadily increased due to graduate referrals as well as the launch of Escoffier Online International Academy in 2012, which allows students in all 50 states and more than 50 countries to participate in online classes.

The link between the school and the military is far from accidental. Though founder Paul Ryan basically grew up in his family’s restaurant, he returned after serving three years in Vietnam with a much clearer focus. “I [was] an 18-year-old high school kid not sure of what I wanted to do in life,” he remembers. “[But] when I got out of the Army three years later at age 21, I had discipline, set some personal goals, and became passionate about working in the hospitality industry.”

Ryan used the GI Bill to pursue a degree in hospitality and restaurant management, and spent the next 28 years working a variety of senior management jobs for major industry players like Marriott. In 2000, Ryan shifted his focus to culinary education, becoming the vice president and managing director at the Le Cordon Bleu network in North America before launching a culinary school of his own. Searching for the best framework, he quickly gravitated toward the teachings of culinary legend Auguste Escoffier.

Michel Escoffier with pastry students.

Escoffier, known as the “father of haute cuisine,” was also a veteran who served in the Franco-Prussian War in the late 1800s. He used his experience in the French army and knowledge of military organization to create the brigade system, also known as the chef de partie system, which is still widely used in professional kitchens. This rank-based chain of command was meant to increase efficiency and improve communication between kitchen employees.

“The culinary world is rooted with the military because of Escoffier creating the brigade system for the kitchen,” explains Auguste Escoffier’s great grandson Michel Escoffier. “The kitchen and its hierarchical structure is natural for veterans, as they already understand the meaning of teamwork and professionalism.” In 2008, Escoffier joined Ryan and business partner Jack Larson to found the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, with campuses in Boulder, Colorado and Austin, Texas.

Aside from the familiar systems veterans may find in the AESCA classroom, the administration places particular focus on helping military-background students hit the ground running during the often difficult transition back to civilian life.

Current pastry arts student Bonnie Archer.

“The staff [of AESCA] worked with me a lot before I was even out of the Army in order to get set up,” says pastry arts student Jessica Nealis, who served as a signal support system specialist from 2006 through 2013 in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Alaska. “I was able to start school less than a month after I was separated from the Army, and that helped me to transition back to the civilian life. I was able to stay busy and just sort of jump headfirst into being a civilian again.”

Nealis notes that AESCA was well versed in the Veteran’s Grant, which took care of the remaining cost of tuition not covered by the GI Bill. Current student Bonnie Archer, who retired after 23 years of military service at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, also found financing her education to be an unexpectedly pain-free experience. “This school…has been a pleasure to work with and very knowledgeable about working with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Post-9/11 GI Bill,” says Archer.

Though Archer had managed and directed foodservice operations for a majority of her military career as a registered dietician working in hospital settings, the Escoffier program allowed her to learn the basics of food preparation so she could pursue a second career in restaurant management.

She might look to AESCA graduate Ricardo Amador for job-hunting tips. Despite initially enrolling in AESCA just to learn how to bake for his two children, the single parent and former Air Force member ended up completing both the pastry arts program and the culinary arts program. He’s now the executive chef at Avery Ranch Golf Club in Austin. “Escoffier offers a peace of mind, knowing that you are being taught for whatever path you decide to take,” says Amador.

Just the process of returning home from military service and enrolling in school can provide another type of peace of mind, according to Hodros. “I 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,” he says. “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.”

Photos courtesy of Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts​

​*This article originally mistated the military branch in which Hodros served. We regret the error. 

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From Military Service to Dinner Service