Courtesy of USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore
Courtesy of USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore

A group of 15 wounded warriors from Fort Belvoir in Virginia gathered around the spits today at Kapnos where Chef George Pagonis taught a cooking class. The afternoon was organized by the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore.

“Normally it’s grilled cheese for them, so seeing chefs in action, maybe they learn it’s not as hard as it looks,” says USO-Metro rep Caroline Ketzler.

Pagonis first got involved with USO-Metro by participating as the guest celebrity chef at the organization’s Salute to Military Chefs event in November. Ketzler says they usually follow up by inviting the guest chef down to Fort Belvoir to teach a cooking class, but Pagonis and the rest of the Kapnos team thought the group would have more fun field tripping to the D.C. Greek restaurant.

“What if we got them more excited, got them out here all together?” Pagonis says. “We’re not open for lunch, so we can have them over, make them some food, and have them learn a few things. Something to take their mind away from things.”

Pagonis demonstrated how to roast a whole lamb shoulder in the ovens with potatoes, how to make kolokithokeftedes (zucchini fritters), and how to stir together the perfect tzatziki (a yogurt sauce with dill and cucumber). “You can’t have lamb without tzatziki,” Pagonis says. “When the lamb was done, we broke it all down, made some Greek salads, and had a meal.”

One of the wounded warriors says it was the best meal he had ever had. “It was so great to see them asking questions, like how long to sear the lamb for and how long to keep it in the oven,” Ketzler says.

While Pagonis doesn’t have any personal or family ties to the military, he says the experience was meaningful “knowing that these guys are going through a very hard time.” He adds that having grown up in Northern Virginia, a lot of service members would frequent his dad’s diner in Alexandria, and many of his high school classmates joined the military.

No stranger to charity and community events, Pagonis says he prefers when he actually gets to interact with people instead of just hosting a dinner to raise funds that will go toward a donation. He feels high-ranking members of the military have noticed.

According to Pagonis, a lieutenant general has visited Kapnos twice, even giving him a token of his appreciation. “All the higher-ups, they really support civilians that go out of their way for veterans and for the guys that just came back from abroad.”