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Why Military Veterans Make Great Chefs

For Dan Tapia, a recovering quadriplegic and Navy veteran, the month of October marks two major life-altering events. In October of 2009, he left Santa Monica on a cross-country cycling trip to Miami, Florida and in a day’s ride in route to Albuquerque he was hit by a semi truck going 65 miles-per-hour. As a result of the accident, Tapia broke his neck on pre-existing service connected fracture lines he incurred as a submariner and would have to undergo surgery at the VA Medical Center in West Los Angeles.

Learn more about military veterans turned chefs on "Meals Ready to Eat." Watch a preview of S1 E3: CIA and Petit Trois.

“I woke up from the surgery and I couldn’t use my arms or legs,” he says. “I’m considered a quadriplegic but I’m what’s called a walking quad — a high functioning quad but I have very limited feeling and strength in my hands and legs.” In addition to the damage caused after surgery, Tapia was diagnosed with palsy, a paralysis accompanied by pain that he lives with every day. “With paralysis, you don’t feel anything but with palsy it affects my perception of physical stimuli and sometimes sensations that should be pleasurable or neutral are very painful and vice versa, sensations that are typically very painful, I don’t feel at all,” he says. Tapia’s condition required him to use a walker until he was able to rehabilitate enough lower extremity strength and mobility to use a cane.

​Tapia says that after the Navy, before his accident, he worked his way up in the hospitality and restaurant industry, focusing on beverage management and consulting — becoming a certified sommelier and cicerone. Fortunately, when he was ready to return to work, his fundamental knowledge and experience quickly landed him as a sommelier to some of L.A.’s top restaurants. “I had to immerse myself into wine because I could no longer move at the pace for bartending,” he says. Tapia explains that it was his last employer, an executive chef of a high-end Beverly Hills restaurant, that ignited his basis for opening his own restaurant, “I was pushed out of my job because I used a cane,” he says. “It’s hard enough being disabled let alone have everyone else try to limit you more than your body already limits you.” By October 2013, Tapia was let go for fighting against disability discrimination and standing up for his civil rights to equal employment opportunities. According to the NRA, around 12 percent of veterans employed in restaurants have military disabilities. In the 2016 fiscal year, disability discrimination claims comprised approximately 40 percent of EEOC's (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's) discrimination lawsuits, stating that almost a third of all charges filed with EEOC include an allegation of disability discrimination.

4th and Olive | Darren Asay
4th and Olive | Darren Asay

November 2016, Tapia opened 4th and Olive restaurant in Long Beach implementing a business model that focuses on hiring veterans as well as providing a healthy and understanding workplace for service men and women of varying abilities to work and thrive. He hopes to break the stigmas associated with veterans with disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder. “We have skills to offer, let us [veterans] share them with you.”

Today, a growing number of military veterans are pursuing culinary careers. Michelle Mullooly, Director of Admissions at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York attributes the increase to the induction of the post 9-11 GI Bill (an education benefit program for individuals who have served on active duty for 90 or more days after September 10, 2001), “Today we have 200 veterans enrolled across all three of our U.S. campuses,” says Mullooly. The culinary field is very natural for military transitioners and veterans due to the built-in structure and drive for excellence. “In this business, you must have a strong work ethic, be organized and show strong leadership — and those are the same characteristics that the military ingrains into veterans that make them successful.”

4th and Olive | Darren Asay
4th and Olive | Darren Asay

There are currently about 300,000 veterans working in the restaurant industry, according to the NRA’s (National Restaurant Association) analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and approximately 58,000 restaurant businesses are at least 50 percent owned by veterans, according to data from the Census Bureau’s 2012 Survey of Business Owners.

Many military vet-chefs are rising through the ranks at some of the best restaurants throughout the United States as a result of their built-in skill sets. Take army veteran and chef de cuisine William Marquardt of Petit Trois in Los Angeles. He began his career with chef Ludo Lefebvre at sister restaurant Trois Familia, he quickly grew into a team leader demonstrating discipline, organization and patience — earning the title of sous chef. “When it came time to open Petit Trois, I wanted to give Will the opportunity to be chef de cuisine and he really stepped up and took control,” says chef Ludo Lefebvre. “He’s a calm force to the kitchen, always patient and there to teach and inspire his team.”

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Lefebvre emphasizes that the military’s implementation of hierarchy plays a crucial role in the kitchen. “If you learn and succeed at one position you can grow and be promoted into another,” he says. “In the kitchen, it is very important to be patient with your growth and success, there are really no shortcuts.”

Navy veteran and CIA Director of Education Chef Howie Velie explains that kitchens operate with the same military precision thanks to a hierarchy and focus. A big part of what the CIA works to teach their students is the importance of mise-en-place (a French culinary phrase which means “put in place”) — a culinary mindset that comes down to order and efficiency. “It’s not a term that military understands or knows but it’s something that they do,” says Velie. “They’re very much about having everything in its place, being organized and making sure you have all of your gear before you jump into a situation — that’s what cooking is, you make sure you have everything in its place before you start to do anything, you organize yourself, prepare, practice and then you cook.”

Many military veterans enroll into culinary school with no prior kitchen experience, Director Velie says, “It doesn’t really matter what they come with as long as they have the passion and desire to move forward.” “I had a woman in my class that was a mortuary attendant in the air force, she was stationed in Delaware,” says Velie. When any fallen service member returns to the U.S. they are flown to the Dover Air Force Base where they are prepared for a dignified transfer. “That was her job before deciding to join the CIA.” For Tapia at 4th and Olive, the majority of his veteran employees have no restaurant experience, let alone kitchen experience. “‘We say in the Navy if you take care of the ship, the ship takes care of you,’” — the same concept applies to the restaurant,” Tapia says. “I have an army ranger that’s never worked in a restaurant before and he’s one of my strongest servers — they’re veterans, you just have to point them in the right direction and let them go.”

4th and Olive | Darren Asay
4th and Olive | Darren Asay

Top image: Darren Asay

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