In a 12-by-8-foot kitchen in Afghanistan, with a grill, field range, and tray-ration heating system, Marine Corporal Daniel Russo cooks two hot meals a day, seven days a week. The Watertown native is solely responsible for preparing food for between 50 to 80 service men and women, and contract workers. “I am going off what I like,” the reservist said, referring to the chicken sauteed in green beans he had served that night. “It is not anything I haven’t seen before but you have to use your imagination with what you have got.”
Russo’s imagination has not only caught the attention of his fellow Marines, but earned him the title of the 2013 Food Service Specialist of the Year by the Major General Hill Awards program, hosted by the National Restaurant Association Military Foundation. The recognition is not for his current deployment, but for the preparation of more than 13,800 meals for drill and annual events in 2012. “Russo’s demeanor and attitude toward his job is unparalleled,” wrote Gunnery Sergeant Charles Parmenter in his nomination of Russo.
The program recognizes food service excellence in the Marine Corps. Candidates are nominated by senior members, reviewed and rated by the foundation’s board, but ultimately selected by the Marine Corps. “What the award says is, you are the best of the best among your peers,” said board member Art Myers.
Recipients participate in Armed Forces Forum for Culinary Excellence at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif., paid for by the foundation. This year, 32 service men and women from the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps took part in the week of culinary training. Since Russo is currently deployed, the foundation is saving him a spot at next year’s forum.
Within the first month in Afghanistan, Russo had fed his Marines well, finding lobster and steak in his supply. “If we have it, we might as well cook it,” said the Marine, who hopes his achievements in food service will build his resume. His goal is to become a police officer. When he returns home to his Cambridge apartment, he will be sure to get a favorite Atomic Meatloaf Meltdown at All Star Sandwich Bar.
Before his service, Russo had never cooked for a large group of people, but when the opportunity for deployment became available through a food specialist position, he jumped at the chance. “On the reservist side, deployment does not happen as often. My only real chance was to sign up,” said Russo. “I enjoy cooking. . . . It is a little different for a lot of people, but you can make it fun. It’s not a bad gig at all.”