HYDE PARK, N.Y.—Julio Gerena is in a wheelchair, his long career in the U.S. Navy and Army forever behind him. But the 52-year-old recaptured some of the old military camaraderie while peeling potatoes and chopping cilantro in a crowded kitchen.
Gerena was among the first 16 wounded veterans who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to take part in a healthy cooking "boot camp" sponsored by the advocacy group Wounded Warrior Project. Former service members once consumed with patrols and sentry posts learned how to poach and saute at the Culinary Institute of America, the renowned cooking school on the Hudson River.
The veterans learned some kitchen tips, but seemed to enjoy even more the chance to spend four intense days with people who have faced similar hurdles.
"There are some things you can't really get into words, but the Wounded Warrior program is to me what being in uniform was before: the camaraderie, the trust," Gerena said after a long morning in the kitchen. "I met some of these people just a few days ago, but I share what they went through."
The Jacksonville, Fla.-based organization runs a range of programs for wounded veterans at locations ranging from college campuses to ski slopes. The group brought its first batch of veterans into the kitchen last week in partnership with the culinary institute. Most of the students served in the Army, but the Navy and the Marines were also represented. Their service-related wounds ranged from spinal cord injuries to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Over four days, they were lectured on the finer points of knife work or braising before heading to a classroom kitchen to turn the lesson into something edible for lunch or dinner.
On a recent morning, the veterans scrambled to pan-sear salmon and saute chicken breasts under the guidance of Chef John DeShetler. As they clattered pans and joked about a return to kitchen patrol duty, DeShetler shouted out tips on carrot dicing and meat slicing.
"Now this is a flank steak! There's only two per animal, that's why they're so damn expensive...! They used to give this away!" DeShetler bellowed.
As DeShetler walked the kitchen, 24-year-old Steve Bohn carefully sauteed mushrooms for a ragout in a pan.
The Peabody, Mass., resident had cooked for a Whole Foods Market before the death of close friend in Iraq inspired him to join the Army in 2007. Bohn was severely injured the next year in Afghanistan when a dump truck packed with explosives collapsed the building he was in. He suffered severe spinal injuries and required reconstructive bladder surgery.Bohn no longer needs a leg brace but he still had a hitch to his step as he moved through the kitchen. He knows that he cannot resume his old kitchen career because he can't stand for long or lift heavy boxes. But he liked the feeling of pushing his limits and being behind a burner again.
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