Culinary training program certifies veterans in a marketable skill

Bob Hope Patriotic Hall, a historic building that was once the tallest in downtown Los Angeles, is dedicated to supporting veterans service organizations and providing veteran-related resources. American Legion Post 8 has called it home since the building's construction was completed in 1926.

Today, the modern 10-story Patriotic Hall shines from a $45 million renovation in 2013, however, it's more than art and décor that make this building a resource for veterans and their families. The full-service commercial kitchen in the basement is bustling with 16 veterans and their family members under the direction of Chef Laura Monje, a traveling corporate chef trainer for Corner Bakery Café. Monje has never served in the military, but she runs her kitchen like a tight ship and is teaching students to do the same.

The eight-week culinary training program at Patriotic Hall is part of a collaboration with Los Angeles Trade-Technical College (LATTC). LATTC provides the instructor, Patriotic Hall provides the facility, and veterans and their family members get certified in a marketable skill. The training started as a program for state certification in food handling to address the hygiene and safety issues, and it has now developed into a culinary accreditation for entry-level work and can be transferred to credit at LATTC toward an associate degree.

Stephanie Stone, chief deputy director of the County of Los Angeles Department of Military and Veterans Affairs who manages Patriotic Hall, said, “We had this beautiful kitchen that was permitted for catering only, and we just saw it as an opportunity to do so much more, obviously for our veterans because that’s our mandate. We have a kitchen that needed to be used, (LATTC) have staff that can train us, and there’s an industry that needs us in terms of veterans. So it is wonderful.”

It’s literally hot in the kitchen as the students are working in teams to prepare meatballs, a chicken dish, and mashed potatoes at a level suitable for fine dining. The students each have their own professional utensil kit that Monje refers to as their wallet as she reprimands someone for leaving gear adrift. “Would you leave your wallet laying around like this?” she asks firmly. “This is your wallet, treat it like that.” The students are learning from start to finish all of the skills necessary to be safe and proficient in a commercial culinary environment. Their culinary experience ranges from little to none, to 20-plus years.

Monje enjoys teaching this course as a way of giving back, and she’s happy to help people who might not have the means to go to a culinary school. Training this group fits right into her ideal. She is also currently obtaining her masters and credentials in education for kids with disabilities. “I want to go into a field where I am helping people,” Monje said. In this course, she’s helping a diverse group of not only military veterans, but also their families.

“Veteran employment in general has been a high priority issue for us on a national level,” Stone said. “We oftentimes forget the families and supporters, and they oftentimes are our caregivers. Oftentimes family’s careers suffer because they are constantly in transition as well. So this is an opportunity to really recognize their service to our country.”

Paola Ignacio is a homemaker who has been taking care of her Marine Corps veteran husband and their daughter for 15 years. She has plenty of experience in her own kitchen, but is now learning about a commercial kitchen.

“It’s really amazing what we are learning in here in a very short time,” Ignacio said. “My baby is now in teenage years, so this is my time to do something for myself and my husband and to help society. I think everybody likes to eat and likes to eat very well, so here in this kitchen we are starting to prepare a really good product.”

Ignacio’s husband is a member of American Legion Post 13 in Pasadena, Calif. “We love the (post) and when we have a chance we go,” she said. Pasadena Post 13 has a program where veterans share their military stories and her husband was a part of it. “I really feel welcomed at Post 13,” Ignacio said. “What I would like to say first of all is thank you so much for all the organizations that take care of the veterans and especially the families. We need a lot of help. Not only in this kind of area but in other areas.”

The course teaches students that the culinary industry is more than just cooking. “I’m going to teach them basic food safety, food cooking, and the ultimate goal is to land them a job,” Monje said. “(I want to) show them the food industry. There are so many different avenues so they don’t necessarily have to be a chef. They could be a restaurant manager, or there are many other ways they can get some work out of this.”

Antonio Campos was a chemical operations specialist in the Army. “I have a background in chemistry so I thought I’d be good at food chemistry,” he said. Campos said he appreciates the diversity and military camaraderie that exists in this training for veterans. “It’s kind of nice because I hadn’t had that in a long, long time. I’m going to be a part of this for a little bit, it seems like I am getting to know myself again. It’s like I’m getting to share my experiences with people who have similar experiences may they be Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines or Coast Guard.”

“For a lot of us it's been healthy and uplifting for people in this particular program because we are all very supportive of each other,” said Andrew B. Williams, a Navy veteran currently living in Long Beach who served as a hospital corpsman and then culinary specialist for the captain of a ship. “I did shipboard cooking, so we had a big galley. The translation is basically the same, the equipment is the same, the procedures are the same. The sanitation doesn’t change, that is the same across the board.”

Upon completion of the program, Williams plans to open a restaurant and operate a food truck. He is also an entertainer and has an idea to combine the two. “It’s going to be like a supper club so we have live shows, some guests coming in, something a little different,” he said. “I haven’t seen but one or two supper clubs here in southern California. I’m going to be hiring veterans so we can keep that consistency, keep that flow of meeting new people and encouraging people. And also offering good food and good entertainment.”

The students in the culinary program are learning from each. “I’m learning new things, I’m learning new techniques from [Chef Monje], and we all learn from each other,” Williams said. “It’s continual growth-based; everybody feeds everyone so you know it's like if one falls, we all fall. If I fail, we all fail. If one succeeds, we all succeed. The whole goal is to have us all succeed at one time. Everybody is progressing, so by the time the program is done everybody will be able to do everything proficiently around the kitchen. That’s the ultimate goal. It’s exciting for me to see this new skill, these new habits and different things. It’s fun.”

Williams said it’s refreshing to be around like-minded people that had some of the same experiences. “We can converse and balance off each other,” he said. “Because of the history and the association through the armed forces it’s pretty much like coming back in and meeting brothers and sisters that you haven’t met, or you’ve been away from awhile and are coming back into their camaraderie.