By Mina Kim
In a stainless-steel teaching kitchen deep within the old stone walls of the elite Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, acclaimed chef Lars Kronmark pulls a piece of fat from the cavity of a raw, whole chicken.
“A big chunk of fat like that, it doesn’t really hurt to leave it in there,” Kronmark said. “But in the end of the day, that’s still going to be too much fat.”
It looks like a standard cooking class. But this is an unusual class for an unusual group of students. It’s a healthy cooking “boot camp” designed for wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with a goal of helping veterans connect with each other and learn to eat healthier.
Six military veterans and their spouses dressed in white chef’s coats and hats watch Kronmark closely. His healthy cooking techniques are welcome tips to the group of 12, including veteran James McQuoid, who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’m of the larger variety,” McQuoid said. “A couple years ago, I didn’t care about my health. I was very reclusive and what not, but through therapy and stuff I’ve come to realize — I’ve got a younger child — I want to be around a bit longer, and I’m really not helping myself at all.”
Federal officials estimate more than 70 percent of the veterans receiving care in the VA are overweight or obese. McQuoid’s doctor recommended he get more omega-3 fatty acids by eating fish instead of fatty meats.
“But I didn’t know how to cook fish,” McQuoid said. “After being here though, I can cook fish!”
The four-day boot camp is a program of the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that serves injured veterans transitioning to civilian life. The camp’s days begin with lectures on subjects like the physiology of taste and end with vets and their partners preparing dishes for dinner. Today’s menu includes roast chicken with lemon and rosemary, Baja fish tacos, and pork loin cooked in a pomegranate glaze.
Yet, the program is playing a much bigger role than helping veterans eat better. Julia Valentour, health and wellness coordinator at the Wounded Warrior Project’s San Diego office, said there’s a waiting list for the classes that often helps veterans break through the isolation they feel when they return from war.
“I don’t think people realize what [veterans] go through and how much they sacrifice for us,” Valentour said. “You’re not hearing about the war on TV everyday, so you tend to forget that it’s still going on.”
At one cooking station a young man in a wheelchair with prosthetic legs, quietly peels sweet potatoes. Another veteran purses his lips in concentration as he chops cilantro using only one hand. But for many of the veterans, their wounds are not visible.
Tiffany Rush-Green who flew in from Phoenix for the class with her husband Yancy Green, a Marine, said this is the first time she’s seen her husband smile in a long time.
“Finally we can do something together, and take our time and just be a team so we can find that common ground,” Rush-Green said. “I am not a veteran, so a lot of times I can’t relate to him on certain issues, but cooking I think we’re going to be able to relate to each other on.”
Yancy Green said his wife is happy because she won’t have to do all the cooking anymore.
“I have no more excuses after this week,” he said.
For Renee Hampton and her husband — who asked not to give his name because he’s on active duty — being here is a dream come true. Hampton said her husband learned to cook when he was five and always wanted to be a chef, but chemicals used in the war robbed him of his ability to smell and taste. Still, it hasn’t dampened his experience in the class.
“I absolutely love this,” he said. “Besides, all my life, I’ve always wanted one of these [chef] jackets, and now I get one.”
For Culinary Institute chef Kronmark, the service members humble him in ways he hasn’t felt before.
“Makes you remember how lucky you are,” Kronmark said. “It’s really amazing.”
The next class is scheduled for May, and will be for spouses or caregivers of veterans.
Listen to Mina Kim’s story: