After Iraq, Finding a New Perspective

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

After a year in Iraq, Arnel Esposo returned to his post this month as chef de cuisine at Palette in downtown Washington's Madison Hotel. As a sergeant in the Maryland National Guard 58th Combat Brigade, Esposo had been deployed in May 2007 to Qayyarah, in northern Iraq, where he served as a truck commander (but, he says, still retained the nickname "Chef"). It was the second time in a war zone for Esposo, 43, who learned his trade as a military chef in Germany, then served in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War.

Esposo spoke with reporter Jane Black about his time overseas and what he craved most while he was gone. Here are excerpts:

Did you cook when you were in Iraq?

No. I tried to get into the kitchen, but I was told I wasn't allowed to because it was a contract. They are well staffed over there. There's not much I can do.

So how did you get the nickname?

When we go on patrol, we don't use our last names. So my code name was Chef. When we'd go out and visit the sheiks in the villages, the kids would come out and they would ask for candies and sweets and soccer balls. When I'd go to the villages, everyone would ask for the Chef.

Did you eat any interesting food?

We were invited in one of the villages for lunch. One minute, there's a goat walking next to us. Next thing, it was on the plate. That's what I call a-la-minute cooking.

What food did you miss most from home?

The thing I was looking forward to having was a real hamburger. So when I got back to work, I had an Angus hamburger with American cheddar.

What lessons did you bring back to the kitchen?

First, I realized all the things we take for granted, all the things we have, the spices and the food. It's easy to make things when you have everything.

But the main thing was how to manage stress in the kitchen. You look at what happens there with perspective. There are no bullets flying over my head. So there's no need to yell. You look at someone who's doing something wrong and you think, "Why not say what you have to say nicely?"

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