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6 Top Chefs Who Started Cooking in the Military

Veterans who provided meals for the troops have graduated to haute cuisine

spinner image three chefs that got started in the military
Left to Right: Chef Jerome Brown, known as "Chef Rome"; Chef Rene Marquis; Chef Melissa Ortiz (Courtesy Chef Rome, Chef Marquis, Chef Ortiz)
Left to Right: Courtesy Chef Brown; Courtesy Chef Marquais; Courtesy Chef Ortiz

Cooking for hundreds of troops might seem like a far cry from being a chef in a commercial restaurant, but some veterans have used their service skills to get to the top table as civilians.

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Chef Brian Hinshaw

Columbus, Ohio

After enlisting in 1982 to pay for his education, Brian Hinshaw found himself in a team of cooks who fed his MASH unit of first responders around the clock. Now he puts what he learned in the Army to use leading 63 corporate chefs for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants. “Being flexible and making it work, no matter what was thrown at you in the field, helps navigate today’s challenges,” he told AARP Veteran Report.

He recently outlined his culinary philosophy to Columbus Monthly: “In the military, there’s only one way to do something, and it’s the Army way. And that’s how master chefs work. For instance, to master something like salmon, you butcher 50 cases of whole salmon until you’re operating on instinct, and it’s perfect.”

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Chef Jason Talcott

Austin, Texas

Jason Talcott enlisted in the Army in 1990 and now holds the rank of command sergeant major in the Army Reserves. During his military career, he has been it all, as a senior manager overseeing a food program supporting 2,250 soldiers and as a culinary instructor teaching more than 1,400 soldiers annually. He was executive chef to Pentagon chiefs William Cohen and Donald Rumsfeld, feeding members of Congress and foreign leaders.

As a civilian, he’s worked for hotels, restaurants, country clubs, a university and a ski resort. He recently offered on LinkedIn “a few notes from a citizen soldier,” advising veterans: “To be a great leader, you have to be a great learner … stay curious and ask questions.”

Talcott is now a food service director for TouchPoint Support Services. “I made the switch to senior living and health care after the pandemic,” he told AARP Veteran Report.

Chef Lamont Brown

Oahu, Hawaii

The Coast Guard was Brown’s way of getting his life on track after involvement in drugs and crime left him with a string of arrest warrants and debts at age 27. His sister, who was in the Army, told him: “Do something with your life!”

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Brown found his vocation when his patrol boat’s cook fell sick and he was chosen as the replacement. He then transferred to become a culinary specialist and eventually a captain’s chef.

In 2018, Brown opened his own restaurant, Maya’s Tapas & Wine, in Oahu, creating a tapas-style menu drawing on Spanish and Mediterranean influences. He has advised veterans: “Take the good of the military and put that into your next chapter. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it.”

Chef Rene Marquis

New York

Even before joining the U.S. Army, Rene Marquis had been trained by the CIA — the Culinary Institute of America, not the spy agency. He was working at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs when a general suggested Marquis become his personal chef. “At first I resisted the idea of the military,” he said in a CIA interview. “I had no desire to enlist until the general explained the benefits. The Army paid off my student loans and I received a sign-on cash bonus.”

What followed was a 19-year career that took him to 52 countries. After being an aide to two generals, he joined one of the Army’s largest facilities at Fort Drum, New York. “We were feeding about 750 for breakfast, 1,200 for lunch, and about 750 for dinner.”

Today, Marquis is a corporate chef with Friedr. Dick, a German knife company based in New York, and remains heavily involved in the military culinary world.

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Chef Melissa Ortiz

Long Beach, California

This chef’s route to cooking began with enlisting in the Army out of high school and becoming a finance specialist under the 126th Finance Battalion from 2004 to 2008. It was when Melissa Ortiz was serving in the reserves in Djibouti, in East Africa, in 2010 that a culinary career became an option.

In Djibouti, she spent a lot of time cooking at the beach. Ortiz made friends with the staff working in the kitchen and was given a weekly grocery order that she’d take off-site to cook, setting up a makeshift grill on the beach for her meals. “Traveling the world sparked my interest in food because I was forced to shift from being picky to exploring food,” she told Voice of OC.

She used the GI Bill to enroll in culinary school and cooked in France before working at restaurants in Long Beach and Santa Ana, California. She then became the chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, for 16 months, returning in May 2021, just three months before the government collapse and the evacuation of all U.S. troops and diplomats.

Chef Rome

Rocky Mount, North Carolina

Jerome Brown, known as Chef Rome, spent seven years in uniform. “Cooking in the Army is one of the toughest jobs to ever have,” he told Black Enterprise. “You’re always the first in and the last out.”

As a civilian, Brown, 55, developed Chef to the Stars, a service that has placed chefs in the homes of more than 75 celebrities. He has been a personal chef to Gen. Colin Powell, the king of Sweden, basketball players Shaquille O’Neal and Mike Bibby, actors Priscilla Presley and Lamman Rucker, and gospel singer Byron Cage.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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