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Ronald Wical works with some greens with one of the Le Cordon Bleu mentors. (Submitted photo)

Veterans get cooking lessons at Le Cordon Bleu

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Hastings Star Gazette
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A handful of veterans at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Hastings are getting a taste of some top-notch cooking. On Thursday, May 15, four veterans sat down to eat a fancy lunch at Technique Restaurant on the campus of Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis. But the best part is that it was the veterans themselves who made it.

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For the past several weeks, veterans have been learning culinary skills and techniques from Le Cordon Bleu students and chefs thanks to a partnership between the veterans home and the school.

It started with the veterans home. Someone in the home’s administration had contacted Le Cordon Bleu last year, said Steven Shapley, the college’s director of education. She had an idea of giving veterans more cooking skills, he said.

That was about the same time the Bleu Vet’s Club, a group of students connected with the military, was getting started, and that group was looking for activities to do.

“We just kind of connected the two groups together,” Shapley said.

The students in the club drove the project.

“They have just taken off with it,” Shapley said.

Hastings Veterans Home rehabilitation counselor Jamie Adler got things coordinated on the Hastings side.

“At first I wasn’t quite sure where this would lead,” she admitted, but she quickly found out.

Four veterans have been attending the classes regularly, and a few others have joined occasionally in the past several weeks. Once a week, the veterans drive to the Le Cordon Bleu campus in Minneapolis, where they get hands-on training using professional grade equipment and instruction in professional grade techniques focused on the type of cooking skills the veterans wanted to learn.

“They really catered it to what the guys wanted to learn how to do,” Adler said.

The veterans came to the program with varied experience in the kitchen. Ronald Wical used to be a cook on the graveyard shift at the Hastings Inn when he was 17, he said. His parents wanted to send him to a vocational cooking school, but he decided to join the military instead. He’s hoping that getting some training through Le Cordon Bleu will help him get a job as a cook again, he said.

Doug Brown’s interest was piqued by his father. Brown’s father had smoked for years, and because he couldn’t taste much of it, food was never of much interest. Then he quit smoking and discovered how much he liked food, Brown said. He remembers his father getting more and more involved in cooking. They were a great pair: “He was a great cook and I was a great eater,” Brown said.

When he heard of the cooking program, he decided he wanted to find out what, exactly, his father had found so fascinating about cooking.

For Dave Daniel, it was a simpler reason. He’s been cooking all his life, he said, but he wanted to know how to do it right.

The first couple days the classes were all about the basics, Shapley said. The veterans were equipped with aprons and started learning things like safety, sanitation and basic knife skills. After that they started developing more specific skills, like bread baking, sauteing, grilling, how to cook vegetables, pasta making and more. They learned how to filet a fish, debone a chicken and make salad dressing and pasta sauce.

For the veterans, it’s been an eye-opening experience. For years they’ve been accustomed to going to the store to buy bread dough or carrots in a can, Wical said. Now they can make those things and more from fresh ingredients. They’ve learned the fine lines between cooking and overcooking and how to use spices to improve the flavor of their dishes. Plus, they get to eat everything they make.

“It’s the only school where you can eat your homework and the teacher doesn’t yell at you,” Daniel said.

“When I came into it, I was fairly blown away,” Adler said. “It’s just an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often.”

It’s been a great experience for the students working with the veterans, too. Tara Woodman has been studying at Le Cordon Bleu since 2012 and is the president of the Bleu Vet’s Club.

“It makes me feel good to be able to help other veterans and show my appreciation for them,” she said.

Not only does she get to practice the skills she’s learned, she gets to help the veterans learn.

“I take it as a practice for me and being able to be a leader to help others, which will help me when I get out in the field,” she said.

Becaues the students in the Bleu Vets Club are all connected to the military – either by being members of the military themselves or coming from military families as Woodman does – the program offers veterans a chance to get out of the home and interact with other like-minded people. It makes for a more relaxed environment, Brown said, because they all have a common bond.

Last Thursday, the veterans wrapped up the first session with a special lunch prepared by the veterans themselves. There was pasta with Mornay sauce; pasta with tomato sauce; shrimp with butter, salt and pepper; breaded and fried chicken; salad with greens, mixed vegetables, hard boiled eggs and vinaigrete; corn; green beans; fresh bread; Asiago bread sticks; cinnamon sticks with icing; kiwi lemon ice cream; and tea and lemonade.

“It went great,” Daniel said.

And Brown finally learned just what it was about cooking that had captured his father’s attention.

“It’s fun to look at a recipe ... and think, ‘that sounds good, but what if?’” he said.

It’s the ability to experiment, to be creative with food and put your own flavor into it.

This isn’t the end of the program. Both the Veterans Home and Le Cordon Bleu hope to continue it and are hoping more veterans will want to get involved.

The Bleu Vet’s Club has reached out to the veterans home in Minneapolis, Woodman said, and Adler said she’s hoping to get more veterans in Hastings to sign up as well.

“It’s just been really unbelievable,” Adler said.

“I always leave there with a smile on my face,” Wical said.

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Katrina Styx
Katrina Styx has been a reporter for the Hastings Star Gazette since 2010. She has a bachelor's degree in English with a minor in journalism from the University of Wisconsin - River Falls. Prior to coming to Hastings, Katrina reported for weekly newspapers in Jordan, Minn., and River Falls, Wis.
(651) 319-4501
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