Iraq veteran uses GI Bill at Portland Oregon culinary school

Kevin back at OCI to complete his Culinary Management Degree after returning from Iraq

We sat down with Kevin Blake, an Iraq veteran, who is wrapping up his Culinary Management AOS Degree at Oregon Culinary Institute. Kevin, along with five other Idaho National Guard soldiers, were sent by the National Guard to OCI back in April of 2010 to receive some special training in preparation for their unique Iraq assignment. After completing his mission, he decided to return to OCI to complete his degree.

How did you end up at Oregon Culinary Institute?

In Feb of 2010 my unit command (in the Idaho Army National Guard) came to me and mentioned that there was an opportunity for active duty time in a schooling environment. That was pretty much all they said, no idea of where or when, I only knew it was culinary related, but that was about it. I had to say whether or not I was interested. I asked how long I had to reply. They gave me 48 hours to decide. I discussed things with my wife, whether to go or not, the pros and cons, and the benefits of taking the opportunity outweighed the benefits of not going so I told them I’d do it.

What happened next?

After a couple weeks, they said I was accepted and gave me the dates for the program. I had two weeks to get things arranged and come here, to Portland and OCI.

Did you know others you were coming with?

Just one. The other four I didn’t know until I got to Boise (I had been in Eastern Idaho, near Pocatello). So all together, there were two of us from the Pocatello/Idaho Falls area, one from Boise, one from Twin Falls, and two from the Lewiston area.

You all met in Boise. How was that?

We met the Thursday before school was to start. We drove from Boise to Portland and on Friday we had orientation at OCI. The first day of class was Monday.

Was it an intense transition?

It was very interesting being in a whole new environment and getting to know so many new people.

What was the school experience like?

I enjoyed it, especially the hands on portion vs. the theoretical side. And how things change from kitchen to kitchen and job to job. I had already gone through a restaurant management program at another school in Idaho, so the environment was entirely new to me. But the hands on learning, like knife cuts and cooking methods, vs. how the other school that just gave us a book and showed us one way of doing things, was good.

How long were you at OCI?

16 weeks.

When you left OCI, did you think you’d be back?

I was definitely looking at the option to come back.

What happened when you left OCI?

We did our annual training and caught up on our basic “how to be a soldier” stuff in Boise. After being in Boise (Aug 25th), we went to our annual training for three weeks, and were on active duty orders around early to mid September to go to Mississippi for training. We were there for about two months for more soldier training, and we did learn a little more about our upcoming assignment. Some of us, myself included, spent some time working at the Roosevelt in New Orleans to get some experience. We took part in preparing for banquets and formal dinners. We did that for five days, then got our mobilization orders for Iraq.

What were those orders?

It was for travel from the states to Iraq. We would be working at the Joint Visitors Bureau in Bagdad, preparing and serving meals for dignitaries and distinguished visitors coming in and out of Iraq.

What was your reaction when you found that out?

I thought it was going to be a good challenge and fun.

We got there on Thanksgiving Day. It was nearly winter yet it was 100 degrees out. Hot and dusty. We were able to relax that day and get everything situated because we were going to start at the hotel the next day. It was a transition from the outgoing crew. That training and transition lasted for a about two weeks, then we hit the ground running with a 250-person banquet for one of many Operation Proper Exit. It’s a program for wounded vets being sent home due to major injury. Part of their healing process is to bring them back to Iraq and lets them leave the battlefield where they were hurt under their own power and strength. We did four of those total. Each one was awesome. They’d stay with us for about a week. We’d do a meal for them every night. The big 200 person meal was the final meal.

We did everything from plated formal dinners for three to 17 people; we did banquets for groups from 25 up to 350 people. The 350 person one was my biggest challenge because it was hosted by the Commanding General of US Forces in Iraq, and it was a joint dinner with the commanding generals of US and Iraq, a part of the transition for US withdrawal. I had to put the whole thing together. There were so many fluid pieces to that dinner that I was given two months to prepare. It went off really well.

I did think that what I got here at OCI really helped me with my presentation for the formal dinners. Like plate composition, how something should look when it goes out to a customer. We didn’t have access to a lot of the fresh spices and herbs that I would have liked, but we made things work with a limited inventory. And no alcohol, so no cooking wines or anything like that.

We were there for nine months.

I decided to come back to OCI to give myself a more rounded education in the culinary field. I’m pursuing a culinary management degree. After school, I want to work in the industry to learn how to run my own place. I’d like to maybe open a simple sports bar or café/grill. Something a little more family oriented. Preferably somewhere back in Pocatello or Idaho Falls. But I have six more years of National Guard, so I definitely have to wait to open my own business. I’m going to manage and learn as much as I can and then decide what the smartest thing to do will be.

Oregon Culinary Institute Chef Instructors in fatigues sent by U.S. Soldiers from Idaho National GuardFrom Iraq, with Love

To visit the website for the Idaho Army National Guard, click here. For info on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs G.I. Bill, click here.