Former Marine MP Justin Zajicek of Ridgefield Park, New Jersey is thinking about his Thanksgiving “Turducken.” “We’ll either be at my parents’ or brother’s house. No matter where, I’ll be cooking, I know that,” he chuckles.
“Turducken” is a de-boned turkey stuffed with a de-boned duck stuffed with a de-boned chicken, skins intact. Each bird is filled with a different stuffing then “you sew it up and put it in the oven, basting continually” he says. “Total, it’s about a seven- to nine-hour process.”
Zajicek passed all the tests, but just before enrolling at the police academy he got word that he was too color-blind to be on the force. His future now gone, he thought long and hard about what he liked and what he was good at. He decided to enroll in the CIA. So instead of policing, Zajicek spends his days learning how to cut, slice, de-bone, mince, julienne and chiffonade.
The Culinary Institute of America, the other CIA, is a private, not-for-profit college that confers two- and four-year degrees in culinary education, and is regarded as the finest cooking school in the country. That a handful of gifted Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are building new careers here isn’t as surprising as it might sound. The CIA has a long history with veterans.
Frances Roth and Katharine Angell founded the New Haven Restaurant Institute in 1946 in Connecticut to provide returning WW II veterans with the vocational training they needed to re-enter the work force. It became The Culinary Institute of America in 1951, and in 1972 relocated to its main campus in Hyde Park, New York. There are also branches in Napa Valley and San Antonio, TX.
While he was in Marine Wing Support Group 37 in Iraq, Zajicek cooked dinner for his unit every night. “After a while you just get sick of the MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) and the military cooks are set in their ways and the food, well, it isn’t the best,” he recalls. He’d enlist a couple of guys to help him secure raw ingredients. “Didn’t matter what I got. Whatever it was, I barbecued it. Just had to be careful to keep sand from blowing on the food.”
A trip to the welding shop turned a huge metal barrel “about four-feet across and three-feet deep,” into a custom barbecue pit with a hinged top, a grate welded inside and an opening at the bottom. “We cooked dinner for our unit, fifteen to twenty guys, every night,” Zajicek says. “It was always me cooking with two guys assisting. We even had other units over for dinner. The Master Sergeant loved it. He came into the Marine Corps to cook and he couldn’t believe what we were doing.”
With money provided in part by the G.I. Bill, Zajicek will be able to complete a four-year culinary degree. The CIA participates in the “Yellow Ribbon Program” which picks up expenses not covered by the government, so that veterans bear little, if any, financial burden.
Though initially unsure about his career change, Zajicek’s parents and four brothers now support him unconditionally. “They’re just happy they have someone to cook for them,” he laughs.
Like his brother in arms, former Staff Sergeant Mike Smetak was the go-to guy at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. Birthdays, office parties, change of command parties, whatever the occasion, Mike and his pastry bags, couplers, tips and off-set spatulas were all over it like white-on-rice, creating custom cakes and pastries. With skills honed on the front lines, the Columbia, Maryland native left Ft. Campbell, KY and went straight to the CIA when his seven-year Army stint ended this past October.
“My entire military career was for the CIA,” says Smetak of enlisting in January 2002. Community college was uninspiring, as was driving for UPS. What really peaked his interest was cooking shows. He saw a commercial for the army and realized that the army could give him the experience he lacked. He shocked his recruiter by asking to be a cook. “No one actually asks to be a cook,” he says dryly.
Unfortunately, when he entered service, Smetak had a rude awakening. The culinary training was insufficient, “nine weeks of nonsense and no food theory,” he says.
Smetak discovered that very few Army cooks were there because they actually liked the field of Food Services, and that his creativity was hampered because “the Army has a manual for everything, even recipes.”
When you’re literally feeding an army you take into account backgrounds, likes and dislikes, so, by definition, the food is going to be bland. The Army’s concern is calories, not flavor. “The guys love chili-mac (mac and cheese with chili) topped with slices of American cheese. Don’t get me wrong. I loved feeding soldiers, but this wasn’t exactly Three-Star Michelin dining.”
When life handed him this lemon, Smetak made, well, Lemon Chiffon Pie. He kept his nose to the grindstone absorbing everything he could. He was a stickler for technique and turned every challenge into a learning opportunity.
As part of Food Service Operations during his first deployment with the 1st Armored Division, he and six other cooks fed 600 soldiers out of a field trailer. “This was Iraq 2003. They didn’t care that we were cooks. They shot at everyone.”
Towards the end of that deployment an old Master Sergeant reservist, also an Army cook, and a National Guardsman who was a chef, turned Smetak on to baking, which led to his hitting the culinary jackpot during his third deployment to Bagram AFB.
The cooks realized he could bake. “The Army attitude is, if someone else does something, then it’s something you don’t have to do. If I baked, no one else had to do it, so they pretty much left me alone,” Smetak remembers. He created pastries like a pate brisee-covered peach filled with a fruit and nut compote with chocolate mousse and ice cream on the side, and he baked a five-and-a-half foot tall cake with “217 pounds of frosting” for Thanksgiving 2008. But it was his doughnuts that put him on the map.
Smetak made doughnuts for fun late at night in a fifteen-gallon drum. One night a Blackhawk crew wandered in and he gave them fresh doughnuts. Soon, Blackhawk crews started to just happen to show up at doughnut time. One night a crew had to leave before the dough had risen, and Smetak overheard a crewman say, “The only reason I volunteered for this mission was to get the doughnuts.”
“I was amazed that this guy volunteered to fly across Iraq in a Blackhawk at night just to have my pastries. My ego still hasn’t recovered,” he jokes, “but mostly I was grateful.”
“Did you ever send a gift-basket to a soldier, any soldier? You do it to say thanks. That’s how I felt when these guys liked my food. It was something that I could put my whole heart into for them.” And when they appreciated it, Smetak says “there was no other joy in the world. In that sense, being part of the Army was the greatest experience of my life.”
Smetak is thankful “for being at my dream school,” for celebrating his first Thanksgiving out of uniform in eight years and for being home with his wife, Meisha. He plans on making a Bohemian-Style Duck, but nothing specific for dessert. “If you have eggs, sugar, flour, butter and milk you can have unlimited pastries. I’ll just wing it.”