USF's Vets-2-Chefs program is cooking up something different for returning veterans

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- It would be an over-simplification to call the Vets-2-Chefs program a way to train veterans to become chefs.

That's only part of the program at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee to help returning veterans put the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan behind them, and pull their lives together by entering a new civilian career.

"It's not so much about training chefs as changing lives, and it is through food," said program founder Bryan Jacobs, who was wounded in a mortar attack while serving as a Navy corpsman in Iraq.

Jacobs suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and hearing loss. His Marine brother, Kevin, took his own life last May.

Twenty-two veterans commit suicide daily in the United States.

Bryan Jacobs found a way forward from the tragedy of war by coming up with the idea for Vets-2-Chefs and winning buy-in from USF.

The school launched a pilot program last June at the the university's Culinary Innovation Lab at Lakewood Ranch's Main Street.

Jacobs provided five veterans with a five-day boot camp on sanitation and culinary technique, and continued with once-a-week sessions over the following two months.

Several of those first students are now working at local restaurants or hospitality programs. The program currently has 10 students enrolled.

Joe Askren, director and instructor for the Culinary Innovation Lab, immediately hit it off with Jacobs when he first became a student there in 2012.

Both were chefs. Even though Jacobs had mended bodies, rather than having prepared meals in Iraq, cooking came naturally to him.

"I grew up cooking fresh food from the farm, and my grandfather was a chef. I was cooking roast beef when most kids were making mud pies," Jacobs said.

He recalls going through a bout of homelessness and battling other demons after being honorably discharged from the Navy.

"I always found cooking to be an outlet," Jacobs said.

For Askren, it seemed like a natural fit to train veterans in the culinary or hospitality arts, recalling his experience at Le Cordon Bleu-Scottsdale.

"Veterans were the go-to people in any class we taught. They had the discipline and the leadership skills," Askren said.

Those skills honed in the military, combined with what the vets are learning, are helping to create and to develop out-of-the box experiences for culinary and hospitality consumers, said Charlie Terenzio, associate director of communications and marketing

"We like to think we are creating the next leaders in the hospitality industry," Terenzio said.

The magnitude of the challenges facing returning American service members continues to come home to the public.

"A lot of hearts are in the right place. It's just a matter of putting the people together," Askren said.

Jacobs agreed: "A lot of people want to help veterans and give back. The local community is 100 percent in support of vets, especially the restaurateurs and hoteliers."

Juliette Agathe Ravinale, student assistant manager for the program, assists in matching students with placements, and says there is nothing like it in her native France.

"We don't hear about veterans in France," she said.

One of the messages of Vets-2-Chefs is that it helps show the depth of support for vets. "It shows that people care. That's huge," he said.

Veterans interested in learning more about the program may email Jacobs at or Ravinale at Restaurateurs and hoteliers who want to know more may contact Dennis Stover at 941-359-4582.

James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.