To an average person with passable culinary skills, cooking up a dinner of braised chicken is all in an evening’s work.
But to a military veteran recovering from a serious injury, preparing that same dish can represent much more: a gentle transition back to civilian life, a healthy lifestyle and even a great source of pride.
That was the basis of the Healthy Cooking Boot Camp at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone, a five-day seminar for 16 California soldiers who’d been injured in the line of duty.
The class was arranged in conjunction with the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that serves wounded veterans.
Some of the 16 participants in the program suffer the effects of mental and emotional trauma. Three have prosthetic legs. But even lesser injuries can limit their ability to exercise, making a healthy diet all the more important.
Despite the CIA’s status as an elite cooking school, participants received no grades and were under no pressure. The goal of the class, according to CIA chef Dieter Doppelfeld, was to encourage healthy eating habits and boost self-confidence.
“I feel like I’ve done my job if I can make them understand that instead of eating pre-prepared food, they should take the time to cook the food themselves,” Doppelfeld said. “Instead of eating deep-fried chicken, make baked chicken. Instead of eating french fries, make baked sweet potatoes.”
That message resonated with veterans like Manuel Del Rio, whose dietary habits run more toward frozen meals and take-out. He said the dishes he learned about at the CIA are not only healthier, but cheaper.
“It might take you a little longer than going to a restaurant, but over the long term it’s good for your health and your wallet,” he said.
As a member of the U.S. Navy on his third deployment, Del Rio was stationed on board an aircraft carrier when he was crushed by a jet. He was stuck under the aircraft for 20 minutes and ended up losing his right leg.
Del Rio said he liked teaming up with his fellow students on a particular dish.
“It’s nice having each other’s back when someone needs help,” Del Rio said. “I liked getting to know each team member a little better, hearing about their difficulties and what they’ve overcome.
“Then at the end of the day you look at what you made together as a team. You realize, ‘Whoa, I just roasted a chicken. That’s pretty neat.’ It definitely gives us some confidence in the kitchen we didn’t have before.”
For Doppelfeld, a certified master chef, the challenge was to adjust his teaching techniques for a set of students with no background in the food service industry, and in many cases little knowledge of basic cooking skills.
“One person had never seen a zucchini,” Doppelfeld said. “So I can’t take anything for granted. Mistakes are certainly allowed. Remember the first time you rode a bike?”
The boot camp got off to an easy start on the first day with sandwiches and simple salads. By the third day, Travis Johanson was frying up green beans with shallots and mushrooms, while Angel Avila was learning to slice up pork loin on the diagonal. (Why diagonal?, Avila asked. Because it looks better, Doppelfeld answered with a grin.)
On the fourth day came the trickiest and most time-consuming techniques, like braising. By that point, the vets were preparing dishes that were wildly different from what they were used to scarfing down in aircraft carrier mess halls and dusty Afghan operating bases.
For example, in the military, chicken is cooked to 165 degrees to prevent food poisoning, Doppelfeld said. But veterans in last week’s boot camp learned to cook chicken to 150 degrees, then continue the cooking process with “carryover heat.” The result is moister, more flavorful meat.
Nutrition was another basic theme of the boot camp. One lesson: Before buying a ready-made food item, read the label. “If there are words you can’t even pronounce, I suggest you don’t buy it,” Doppelfeld said.
He added that the program continues a Culinary Institute of America tradition of supporting the military.
The college was founded in New Haven, Conn., in 1946 to train veterans returning from World War II. Cooks from all branches of the military have been trained at the CIA over the years, and more than 100 veterans are currently enrolled at the CIA with the help of the GI Bill.