By Army Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod
1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division
FORT BRAGG, N.C: When White House ushers told the auditioning chef it was a good sign if the president wanted to meet him after the third course, it was a defining moment in the culinary career of J.D. Ward, at that time an Army staff sergeant.
For the Oklahoma farm boy turned big-city chef who had worked 80-hour weeks for five years in the restaurant business and who could expect pretty much the same for many years to come, enlisting in the Army had provided unforeseen and unmatched opportunities.
"Growing up on a small farm in Oklahoma, I experienced some pretty wonderful country home cooking," Ward said. "I was able to see something go from the earth to the table, and that impressed me."
Ward enjoyed college at Southwest Texas State, but he yearned for a different lifestyle. He decided to spend a year working in the best restaurant he could find and simply enjoy the food. What he hadn't counted on was how well-suited he was for the business.
"I was infatuated with that lifestyle -- the long hours and the tight-knit community within the kitchen, the environment with the wine, before-and-after dinner drinks, exposure to wonderful food and the ability to have that wonderful food available at any time," he said.
Learning the basics, Ward worked his way up, and after a couple of years, he was a banquet sous chef, an under-chef somewhat like an Army sergeant. He found himself teaching culinary arts students what they had been paying $27,000 a year to learn, and he was getting promoted and receiving accolades.
David Bull, a former boss and who now oversees culinary operations for the Austin, Texas, area's La Corsha Hospitality Group, described Ward as "dedicated, loyal, passionate and possessing a no-fear attitude and confidence to be successful in the business."
However, the lifestyle in the long term was very hard for Ward. In five years, he worked 10 different jobs in Austin and San Antonio, a typical pattern for cooks eager to learn the ways of different chefs and kitchens. Much of the time, he had a day job and an evening job, consistently putting in 80 hours a week.
"I learned traditional French cooking techniques from traditional chefs, and it was wonderful," he said. "I took a lot of pride in it."
Age and experience in the world brought new interests. He met Paula, his future wife, and a now-familiar book, "Band of Brothers," rekindled a family legacy of service.
"From the time that I was knee-high, I knew my father had been a paratrooper, and I always wanted to be a soldier," he said. "I was 24 years old, and I said, 'I have to join now, or I will be too old when it comes time to do it.'"
Ward believed he was taking a four-year break from the high-stress restaurant environment to satisfy an itch to serve and to marry Paula. Additionally, the Army would give him a secure job and benefits to begin his new family.
As a military brat, Paula said, she had vowed never to marry into the military, but she did. "He is so funny and outgoing," she said of her husband. "We were married two days before his basic training."
Ward enlisted for four years. While assigned to the Old Guard, he discovered the Army Culinary Arts Competition at Fort Lee, Va., and in a way, he found his home.
"I went to the culinary arts competition, and I realized that I didn't know one-tenth of what I thought I knew about cooking," Ward said. This comes as no surprise to one of Ward's Army mentors, Sgt. 1st Class David Russ, also an accomplished chef before joining the Army. One of first instructors at the Army Culinary Arts School, Russ attributes 75 percent of what he knows about food to the Army.
In the Army, Ward said, he met other people who knew more about traditional cooking than he knew existed and they'd been competing on the world stage for years.
"What I thought was going to be a break ended up being something that I fell in love with," he said.
The Army provided more opportunity for quicker advancement than life as a civilian chef would have, Ward said. There were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities as well, such as being the first member of the Quartermaster Corps to guard the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
At a culinary arts competition, the young Army chef was recruited to work at the secretary of the Army's mess in the Pentagon, where he cooked for the most-senior members of the Army staff. One thing led to another, and after he competed in the 2006 Culinary World Cup competition in Luxembourg -- during which the Army team earned 12 gold medals -- Ward found himself auditioning to be then-President George W. Bush's chef.
"Chef, he is ready for you," the usher said.
In his fresh clothes, Ward went out to talk to the president and his wife, Laura, and their friends. They chatted about where he had cooked in Austin and the fact that he was still in the Army, and two weeks later, he was offered the job.
But to Ward's surprise, he would take another path. At the pinnacle of his culinary career, the ambitious Texan realized he didn't want it any more, and he needed a new challenge. He prepared a warrant officer packet and was accepted.
Three years later, Ward said, he realizes it was the best decision of his career. Though he virtually has given up day-to-day culinary artistry, he explained, he is far more challenged as an officer and still is able to maintain his foothold in food service, something that he will always love.
"I am learning so much more as an officer than I ever would have as a chef," he said. "I have a whole new level of experience. Now I see myself as a manager, and to some degree, a food-service executive, rather than a chef. Who knows where I could have gone in 10 to 15 years as a chef, but I've grown so much more as a man."
His wife agrees. "He's matured," she said. "He's become a more well-rounded person with organizational and leadership skills. He is a better communicator. He's always had a drive to succeed and do well, but the Army has given him advantages as a person and as a soldier. That has even translated into married life."
Now wearing the rank of chief warrant officer 2 as the command food service technician for the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team here, Ward still gets a gleam in his eyes when he sees fresh produce, said Paula, who is finishing a degree in psychology.
"He gets on a roll when it comes to ingredients," she said with a laugh. "He'll start talking about fresh herbs, and 30 minutes later, he's still talking about fresh herbs, like Forrest Gump's friend, Bubba, talking about the many ways to prepare shrimp."
She added that she can't imagine a different life. "I like the military lifestyle," she said. "We've had a lot of growth. The Army has been very beneficial to us. We have a special-needs child, and the Army Family Covenant and the Army in general have been very responsive to our needs. I know that's not always the case –- sometimes Army couples have to look for it."
Ward said he still works long hours, but now it's by his own design and it's just who he is. His job is much like running a business, with responsibility for the entire food-service operation for a brigade of 3,500 paratroopers, making sure all field equipment is ready in case the brigade is called up, managing accounts within a strict budget, attending to outgoing and incoming personnel, and more.
"Our challenge is to get our cooks to love what they do," he said. "Most come in eager to learn, but it can very quickly become a disheartening job. However, if, from the top down, people are engaged, encouraged and excited about serving lunch to a brigade of paratroopers, and they take pride in the challenge, then it's a lot more fun, and these guys love it."
Any young cook who might be discouraged in the Army's industrial food service system just needs to be exposed to the broader pieces of Army food service, Ward said.
"They have to look for it, and they have to ask," he added. "It's important to have that drive."
While some enlistees may think the Army is going to give them a professional education and experience to open a restaurant, that's not entirely true, he noted. However, he added, it can give a soldier the maturity, the wisdom, the leadership skills and the management skills they won't necessarily get coming up through the ranks of a hotel kitchen.
"If you can cook two quality meals a day for 700 troopers off a mobile containerized kitchen with a team of four cooks, then I know you can be a success in any other piece of food service if you apply yourself," he said. "It's not necessarily true that if you cook successfully in a hotel kitchen, you can also cook on an Army field kitchen."
Ward and Russ –- now a retired sergeant first class -- agree that involvement in the Army Culinary Arts School and its competition team can be a key component of an Army chef's success. Russ, who was named National Military Chef four years in a row -- he shared a spot on "The Tonight Show" with actress Sandra Bullock in 2003 -- credits the schoolhouse for raising the standard of Army food service through training.
He also stresses the importance of having leaders like Ward, who really care that soldiers receive a quality dining experience, whether at the dining facility, eating "hot A's" in the pine forests of Fort Bragg's training sites or deployed in a war zone -- leaders who, like Ward, will say and mean things like, "If a soldier's eating in the 1st Brigade, I want to be a part of it."
An entry-level Army cook may not understand why he is doing some of the job's tasks until becoming a senior leader, Ward said.
"He might spend his day preparing a single product for a field feeding exercise, but when you see from above the entire product coming together, then you understand the value that each soldier brings to the team," he explained. (Issued on April 22, 2011)