Five military veterans stand at work stations in the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee’s Culinary Innovation Laboratory in Lakewood Ranch. Armed with whisks, the former soldiers’ military uniforms have been replaced by white double-breasted chef’s jackets.
All eyes are on their instructor, former battlefield paramedic Bryan Jacobs, who is teaching the students how to make a roux.
Heat, he explains, is crucial. Too much heat, and the roux — a thickening agent for sauces — will be too dark. He demonstrates the proper technique when ladling stock into a pan. He shows one student the right way to hold a rag. Like the military, a kitchen requires discipline, timing and order, he said, so veterans make perfect candidates for culinary training.
“Keep your eyes open, keep your ears open and be able to take directions,” Jacobs says. “Veterans already have that ability built into them.”
The students are the latest group to progress through Vets2Chefs, a 12-week culinary training program for military veterans. The program includes a five-day boot camp, mentors and a job at a restaurant.
The veterans Jacobs targets are those who return from service to a world they no longer recognize.
“We spend all this money going into the military, to train and educate young people to act a certain way, to walk a certain way, to carry themselves a certain way, yet we don’t retrain the mind or the body to act as a civilian again,” Jacobs said.
Keep your eyes open, keep your ears open and be able to take directions. Veterans already have that ability built into them.
Chef Bryan Jacobs
Jacobs knows better than most the struggles of re-acclimating to civilian life.
He expected his experience as a Navy corpsman serving in the Marines to open doors for him in the emergency medical field, but he didn’t have the necessary civilian certifications — a speed bump that seemed ridiculous to him. He held 22 different jobs before he found himself in a similar situation to the veterans he now wants to help — jobless, homeless, addicted to alcohol and living in his car.
He enrolled in culinary school in Virginia and discovered his passion.
On Memorial Day weekend in 2014, Jacobs’ brother, who served in Iraq as well, committed suicide. Jacobs said he had heard statistics about suicide, but the numbers always seemed far off. His brother’s death propelled him to start Vets2Chefs.
“We never think it is going to come this close to home,” Jacobs said. “I kind of vowed that not another vet on my watch would take his life, not another would be walking around aimlessly.”
Jacobs’ students can relate to his story.
They said they had this Vets2Chefs program, and I was like, ‘You’re kidding.’
Culinary student Stephanie Smiggen, 28, had struggled to find a job after leaving the Navy, where she had tested explosives. Employers were not looking for someone with her skill set.
“Having the experience I had in the military and not being able to find a job was very disappointing,” Smiggen said.
She became addicted to cocaine and methamphetamine and was depressed. When seeking help at the Goodwill, they asked about her dream job. When she told them she had always wanted to be a chef, she couldn’t believe there was a program seemingly custom-made for her.
“They said they had this Vets2Chefs program, and I was like, ‘You’re kidding,’ ” Smiggen said.
Billy Nobles, 53, an Army veteran who hopes to become a pastry chef, had been working at McDonald’s before the program began.
“It’s given me a better idea of all the possibilities out there,” said Nobles, shortly before Jacobs calls him back to finish the sauce-making lesson.
Jacobs’ command over the class is evident, as is the military culture that shaped both instructor and the pupils’ approach toward learning a task. “Yes chef” and “No chef” had replaced “Yes sir and No sir.”
Jacobs tells his students not to view fat trimmings or vegetable leftovers as trash. The best chefs will use those scraps in sauces.
“Think like a chef,” Jacobs said. “Don’t see something for what it is; see it for what it could be.”