RETURNING HOME This is the first in a series that will run in the next few months on veterans training in the food industry.
From a pinch of salt to a drop of water, Matthew Gates preps the mise en place — a system of setting up ingredients before cooking — for the prestigious Culinary Institute of America’s test kitchen. As a token of his military service, he wraps his knives with camouflage tape.
Gates, 27, a US Army veteran and Littleton native, is completing his first year at the CIA’s Hyde Park, N.Y., campus, crafting and assessing recipes for the school’s publications, including submissions to USA Today. In 2013, Gates ended seven years of service with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., as a sergeant and unmanned aircraft systems operator. Gates had set his sights on culinary school before he medically retired. “I can remember my great-grandmother, when I got off the bus she would make soups from scratch,” Gates says. “Smelling her home and knowing that there was this love put into it. Maybe that planted the seed.”
Now Gates is paying for school on a plan similar to the Post 9-11 GI Bill. The Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program, a Department of Veterans Affairs education program for veterans with service-connected disabilities, assists Gates with the $13,230 tuition, fees, and supplies, an average total of $15,000 per semester at the culinary school. Gates, who is recently divorced, also receives a monthly housing allowance based on his sergeant E-5 rank without dependents, status as a full-time student, and ZIP code. He takes out federal loans for additional living costs. “It gives me the freedom to not work and focus on school,” says Gates. “I had not been in school for almost eight years. I knew I needed to buckle down.”
The restaurant and food industry employs more than 250,000 military veterans, according to the National Restaurant Association. In the next five years, the NRA projects the number of employment opportunities will increase by 25,000. The Army transitions 80,000 to 100,000 veterans to civilian life annually, meaning 1 million of them will be job hunting over the next decade. Growing industries and veteran benefits play a large role in a veteran’s success.
In 2013, more than 1 million veterans participated in VA education programs, according to the department, an increase of nearly 600,000 since 2001. The increase is due to the US military’s drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the department reports.
The CIA has roots in training returning World War II vets, when it was a Connecticut culinary vocational school. Today, the independent, not-for-profit institution prides itself on hosting veterans from all branches of the military and currently enrolls 150, with Gates among those working toward a two-year associates degree.
A kitchen, says Gates, has a structure that parallels military life. Clean-shaven in chef whites or sporting business casual at his externship in the school’s publishing department, he tests four to six recipes a week for textbooks, consumer cookbooks, and submissions to USA Today. He follows recipe instructions exactly, taking detailed notes to improve the meal for the intended audience. The department then tastes his dishes and brainstorms on more ways to improve. “It’s been really, really interesting and an amazing experience. There is some dynamic freedom that comes with it,“ Gates says.
The onetime avid art student put his creative freedom on hold when he joined the Army after graduating from Littleton High in 2006, following a father, grandfather, grandmother, and stepfather into the armed forces.
After basic training, Gates attended a 24-week course in advanced training in unmanned aircraft systems operations. In late 2008, he was deployed to Afghanistan for a year, where he reenlisted for another four. But declining physical health affecting his knees and back cut Gates’s military career short. Since then, he’s been feeling selfish for focusing on his personal future, he says. “There is something in knowing that you are going to sacrifice so much for your country. It is very powerful,” he says.
Gates hasn’t decided if he will enter a longer CIA program to earn a bachelor’s degree in culinary science. He hopes to continue recipe development writing, a gig that allows him to avoid standing for 12 hours at a time.
The mission may not be the same as the military’s, but Gates finds meaning in the kitchen. “Food is a universal language. You can connect with someone on a more intimate level with food than anything else.
“To make something great and present it to somebody and have them love it,” he says, “there is nothing else like that.”