This Veterans Day, military professionals around the country will find a welcoming audience in restaurants. Countless operators, from the most recognized chains to the smallest independents, will offer food and drink specials to show their appreciation for the men and women who have served our country.
This might seem standard and even commonplace these days, but it wasn’t always the case. When my father returned from Vietnam, he hurried to the nearest store and purchased whatever clothing he could find, fashionable or not. He was greeted with jeers and hostility, and had to rid himself of all military garb just to make it quietly through the airport.
This changed as people became educated on POWs, MIAs, and, surely, after the tragic events of 9/11. In time, the restaurant workforce and veterans have developed a very gratifying relationship. According to the National Restaurant Association, there are more than 250,000 military veterans holding jobs throughout the industry. At The Culinary Institute of America, we average around 150 veterans on campus year-round. During our welcoming ceremony, we hand out a special pin to incoming veterans to honor their service.
One note you hear often from operators is that employees with military backgrounds stand out. There’s no denying the sentiment. Statistics from the NRA show that 19 percent of veterans in the industry have management positions, compared with just 10 percent of nonveterans. Also, 14 percent of veterans are in supervisor positions, compared with 8 percent of nonveterans.
I was a petty officer third class in the U.S. Navy Submarine Service and served onboard a fast-attack submarine before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I can attest to the fact that the pressure and expectations of service translate very well to the kitchen. There’s a sense of urgency and a need to stress every detail that meshes perfectly. Mise en place, or making sure everything is in order, is a way of life in the military. It’s easy to teach somebody how to flip an egg, but it’s a lot harder to get them to flip 50 eggs—the exact same way—in 30 minutes.
As for military professionals themselves, the restaurant environment pre-sents a similar environment to being in the service. Think of it like this: If someone cooks a dish for a customer, there’s a very short window before the performance review arrives. Quick satisfaction is a staple of the military. In regard to job performance, soldiers are told whether they did a good job or not, and if not, they’re guided to do better. That’s something even the best chef can relate to.
One challenge is finding a way to connect the two parties. There are numerous initiatives around hiring veterans, but it’s a conversation that needs to keep advancing. Around 12 percent of veterans employed in restaurants have military disabilities, according to the NRA. Yet there remains a stigma, especially when it comes to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m hopeful that, especially as veterans continue to prove themselves in the food world, this barrier gets broken through.
Students with military backgrounds are model citizens at the CIA. They come in, sometimes as 22- or 23-year-olds, with a strong foundation. This is definitely true of the career types, whom I often need to counsel to slow down and adjust to the pace of their younger peers. With the proper training, veterans can develop into great professionals and true leaders in our industry. Veterans know how to take charge of a situation, and, when it comes to a restaurant, that’s a skill you simply can’t teach.