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Content warning: This article includes descriptions of suicidal ideations. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 1(888)7WE-HELP for local assistance or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
When D.C. resident Ronald Reaves was medically discharged from military service in 2004, he struggled to find a path forward while coping with PTSD. “The conversation around mental health now is completely different than in 2003 and 2004,” says the U.S. Army veteran, who deployed once to Iraq. “They told us to be a man and get over it.”
Reaves searched for outlets to help channel the anger he felt about the lack of mental health support he received. When people shrugged off his concerns, he began a process of trial and error to find a way to care for himself. At first he tried boxing.
He first entered the ring in Georgia in 2004, training professionally but never acquiring the fortune and fame fighters strive for. Being in “with the wrong group of people” meant he couldn’t further his chances in the sport. His six-year fighting stint concluded in Baltimore. Boxing had been an attempt to cope, but it was too violent and not a way to sustain a living.
Since the gratification of fighting would not offer Reaves the peace and focus he desired, he had to make a change. That’s when he turned to cooking while staying at a local homeless shelter for veterans. He enrolled in DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training program in 2013 and graduated that same year.
“Cooking is very militaristic in the sense of getting things done, and I loved that,” Reaves says. He found jobs in kitchens in the D.C. area upon graduating, including at Ocean Prime downtown, MGM National Harbor, and Fedex Field. The hospitality industry ended up saving him.
In August of 2015, Reaves hit a breaking point and considered taking his own life. “Everyone kept asking me, are you OK?” Reaves recalls. While working as a line cook at Gordon Biersch in Navy Yard, he’d hit a low and those around him noticed how uncharacteristically quiet he was. He got off early and was alone with his dark thoughts. “I couldn’t even see what was going on,” he says.
Feeling insurmountable pressure, Reaves put on some music and set out for a walk to clear his head. When he glanced at his watch it was close to midnight. He stood inside the Navy Yard Metro station counting the time until the next train would arrive.
Reaves planned to step in front of the incoming train. “When it got to one minute away, I started to make my way down the escalator,” he says. A baseball game had just let out late and a crowd of people rushed into the station. He managed to spot his colleague, a sous chef. “He didn’t see me, but that brought me back to, ‘Man, what the hell are you doing?’ Then thoughts took back over again. As the train arrived, I went to step. As I stepped there was a gentleman there who grabbed my arm. It felt like an adult catching a child doing something they weren’t supposed to do.”
Reaves went to the emergency room that night and sought help. Through the VA he got the assistance he needed to improve his mental health and feel stable enough to commit to a cooking career. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in 2021 to pursue a bachelor’s degree and is scheduled to graduate in 2023.
Once he has his degree in hand, Reaves says he plans to return to D.C. and grow his business. Up until he enrolled in culinary school he ran a private chef company, Kitchen Veteran LLC. He’s currently carrying out a culinary externship in Charleston, South Carolina, and also devotes some of his time to telling his story to help other veterans. “It’s about understanding the why,” he says. “It’s a big deal for me. I can go do whatever I want now. Cooking is a whole new creative level for me.”
The hospitality industry is made up of a diverse group of people spanning many backgrounds and life experiences. A huge draw for workers to join the food world is its accessibility coupled with the structure and it offers. Some, like Reaves, crave the creativity cooking affords. Others find comfort in order.
“When you have massive prep lists and you are doing one motion over and over, and your entire focus is slicing figs into quarters, it’s very therapeutic,” says John Mohl, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who deployed to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2015. He’s now a sous chef at Stracci Pizza in Alexandria. He finds fulfillment and satisfaction by completing tasks that add up to something whole, like a plated dish.
Like Reaves, Mohl says restaurant work helped him cope with issues he faced after leaving the military. He says he’s always struggled with depression and serving only exacerbated it. The kitchen offers the release he needs.
“It helps you clear your mind when you are doing a repetitive task over and over again, sometimes for hours,” he says. When Mohl was in a car accident in March 2016, it triggered traumatic memories from his time in the military. The instability from the car accident got to him that day. “I just started peeling potatoes and I spent probably two hours peeling potatoes. By the end of it, I felt calm and more relieved,” he says.
Cooking can help veterans push through the past and move on, according to Mohl. “The focus on dinner service is similar to a lot of the things I had to do in the military. It can be an easy transition to the kitchen,” he says. He cites “callbacks” as an example. That’s kitchen speak for when a chef tells his line of cooks what dishes to prepare and they verbally acknowledge receipt. He also likes mastering a task before moving on to a new one.
Some modern kitchens have structures that go back centuries when the “brigade system” was first introduced. The method for hiring and organizing restaurant labor is used to run kitchens efficiently and to give certain individuals the tasks needed to bring the whole restaurant together.
Auguste Escoffier is credited with introducing it in the 19th century. He based the hierarchy of the kitchen on his time in the French military. While the method proved efficient in its design, it also served as a template that could be used to exploit or abuse workers due to its hierarchical nature. Some chefs are looking for new ways to structure their kitchens.
While this structure doesn’t work for everyone and is currently evolving, some veterans like the organization and rigid structure a kitchen can offer when led in an efficient way. “It provides that order, that mise en place mentality,” says Tim Gonzales, a D.C. resident, who served as a specialist in the U.S. Army from 2008 to 2011. “I always found comfort in the order and intensity of it. I was combat arms so everything we did was intense. The loud noises, high flames, and sharp objects were intense yet familiar.”
Gonzales realized he wanted to go into culinary school after being deployed with the Army to South Korea. He missed a lot of the foods he grew up on thanks to his Mexican heritage. His mom would send him her recipes and he started cooking on base. After completing his service, Gonzales enrolled in culinary school with GI Bill benefits. “I had always grown up in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother and I always loved food,” he says. “I wanted to follow that passion.”
Veterans in restaurants are equipped to handle the chaos in a slammed kitchen. When a line cook falls behind on orders or prep during meal service it’s called “being in the weeds.” “This can be a good thing,” Gonzales says. “You have to learn how to get yourself out of it. The same thing when serving. If you are in a bad situation, you have to stay calm, prioritize, and do the best you can do to get yourself out.”
Culinary school was also a blessing for Gonzales as he felt the structure helped him acclimate to a new environment. “You have to shave everyday, you need a clean uniform, you need all the tools ready that are necessary,” he explains. “That discipline was beneficial for me.” He’s progressed into a leadership role at the National Museum of the American Indian, where he is the director of dining for restaurant associates.
Like Gonzales, Marc-Adam Rodriguez also deployed to South Korea with the U.S. Army and served from 2010 to 2015. He learned to cook for others in an unconventional way. “We had friends from Jersey and California and they were homesick,” he says. “You know, barbecue brisket, tacos, eggplant parms. I would go to the local supermarket on post and get the eggplant, and we would all get together and celebrate where that person is from.”
After leaving the armed forces, Rodriguez looked into other avenues of work. He tried out cyber security, but found he was not as passionate about it as cooking, which led him to enroll in pastry school at International Culinary Center in New York City. After graduating, he cooked in kitchens in the D.C. region and once worked at The Inn at Little Washington with Mohl. After a seven-month stint on the West Coast, Rodriguez is headed back to D.C. for a job he landed at Bourbon Steak in Georgetown.
Rodriguez explains an idea he has about when veterans start working outside of the military after separation. Upon first leaving the military, you lose that structure it provides and it can be hard to remain calm and focused without that grounding schedule many rely on. “When you are closer to the point of separation from the military you are more anxious or nervous,” Rodriguez says.
While at The Inn he tutored a young cook fresh out of the Marine Corps. “Being in a restaurant and so close to that time of separation, he was scared of making those decision calls on his own,” Rodriguez says. “He was looking for someone to give him the order on what to do.”
“Guys and girls who have been out longer have that decision-making [ability] developed better,” Rodriguez says. “They recognize it is not as high risk as when serving. Lives are not on the line and they are able to be more natural and fluid leaders.”