Veterans find a new way to serve - in the kitchen

By Jeremy Harlan, CNN | 11/11/2013, 3:31 p.m.
Veterans serve from in the kitchen
Former Marine Michael Randolph, Jr. traded his uniform for a chef's jacket to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Photo by CNN.

All Michael Randolph needs right now is a pair of tweezers. The small implement is a far cry from the firepower the former Marine used to pack, but he needs them to put the shredded cabbage finish on his elegant canapé of duck foie gras on toasted brioche with Dijon vinaigrette.

“Can I borrow your tweezers real quick, like for four minutes?” Randolph, a student at the Culinary Institute of Americain Hyde Park, New York, asks a colleague across the way from his prep station.

Time is of the essence. A full slate of lunch reservations is about to fill the dining room and Randolph has only few minutes to get his creations to the front of the kitchen. They will be the first bite eager diners take before the start of their three-course meal.

“I never really thought I’d be using tweezers in the kitchen,” blurts out Randolph, borrowed tweezers now in hand, as he delicately sets the last few cabbage shreds on the nickel-sized starters. Eight years ago, The Bocuse Restaurant’s kitchen was probably the last place he thought he’d wind up.

"I literally knew nothing about the culinary field," he recalls.

In September 2006, his tool of trade wasn’t a chef’s knife or measly pair of tweezers. It was a M16 assault rifle and the Pennsylvania native was on his way to his first tour of duty in Fallujah, Iraq as a United State Marine Corps machine gunner. He did two tours in the war-torn country before leaving the Marine Corps and starting a new career.

“It was a close call between reenlisting or getting out and trying to find a job. I ended up choosing the passion over what I planned to do temporarily,” explains Randolph. That passion led him into the kitchen.

"As a kid I saw a lot of cooking by my grandparents and on TV. I would watch cooking shows or record it and replay it again and again," remembers Randolph. "It just seemed very interesting ... the different stuff that they were creating."

After a few years of doing food service at a small hotel, Randolph applied to the Culinary Institute of America in hopes of vastly expanding his knowledge of professional cooking.

“I always had it in the back of my mind to come to the school even prior to doing the four years active in the Marine Corps.”

This is an increasingly well-trod career path for many veterans leaving military service for new careers. The CIA has roughly 130 veterans out of almost 2900 students on its Hyde Park campus. Veteran enrollment has tripled since 2008.

“In the years since the conflicts of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we have seen a significant increase in the enrollments of returning veterans on our campuses,” says Cynthia Keller, the school’s Associate Dean of Culinary Fundamentals.

“We have a broad variety of students that have done many different things in the military service. We’ve had folks in weapons disposal and we’ve had folks that were medics. And on campus right now we have a rather high proportion of submariners.”