Culinary Institute of America/Phil Mansfield

Military Veterans Make Great Chefs

Enrollment of military veterans is on the rise at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, which—ironically—was founded immediately after World War II to provide culinary training for returning veterans.

According to the CIA’s admissions office, the current enrollment of 159 veterans, out of a total enrollment of about 1,800, represents a nearly 400 percent increase since 2008.

Reasons for the increase include a large number of veterans returning from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the CIA’s Yellow Ribbon program that helps veterans cover tuition and fees that exceed the $17,500 the GI Bill covers for a private-college education in New York.

“Veterans are well-suited to the program,” says Chef Howie Velie, the school’s associate dean of culinary specialization and a Navy veteran. “It’s a similar environment—it’s team-oriented, working in close quarters with one person in charge, like in a platoon. Everyone has a specific job.”

Hands-on training follows the brigade system established in the early 20th century by Auguste Escoffier and that continues to be used in most full-service restaurants today.

Velie says the veterans he has taught are more organized, motivated, and faster workers than most non-veterans. Students range from those who served between four and six years in the military to retirees who served more than two decades.

The CIA’s career services department and a huge network of some 15,000 graduates in the field help graduates find jobs.

James Cook, a recent CIA graduate, has had no problem finding positions in his field. Knowing in high school that he wanted to be a chef but unable to afford the tuition, he joined the military so he could qualify for the GI Bill.

While serving for four years in the Navy, Cook was a Foodservice Specialist who eventually was put in charge of food purchasing and related responsibilities on board the ship. With his service complete, he enrolled in the CIA and obtained his associate’s degree in culinary arts before returning for a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts management.

Since graduating, he has worked at Gleason’s Restaurant in Peekskill, New York, and now is in the management-training program at multi-unit, quick-serve Cook-Out Restaurants in Columbia, South Carolina.

Graduate James McIntosh, who retired from a 20-year military career before enrolling in the CIA, is a banquet chef at Indian Trail Club in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. He graduated in 2008 with a perfect attendance record—a habit he continues during 50- to 65-hour weeks at the country club.

“If I’m not there, I’m not learning,” he explains. His previous foodservice experience took place off-hours in the military, when he cooked part-time in officers’ clubs.

“The military had a lot to do with how well I adapted to the field, McIntosh says. “You are used to a lot of long hours and to working nights, weekends, and holidays. I enjoy it. It has been a great second-choice career; I’ve had no second thoughts and no looking back.”

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