All Ryan Davis ever wanted to be was a pilot. He was set to become a full-time instructor with Silver State Helicopters in Mesa, Ariz., when the company suddenly went bankrupt, just one more victim of the economic meltdown of 2008. Davis considered his various options — and then joined the U.S. Army later that same year.
“I wasn’t forced into the military,” says the chief warrant officer, “but I wanted to keep flying.”
Like the helicopter company, Davis’s career as an Army pilot didn’t last long. Three years ago, Army doctors grounded him. At the time, Davis was serving in a medevac unit that flew Black Hawk helicopters in Afghanistan to rescue wounded soldiers, sometimes taking enemy fire in the process. Davis’s back injury, which he traces to his parachute training with the Army before becoming an aviator, had become so acute that he could not sit for long stretches in the cockpit.
“It just got worse and worse until I finally couldn’t even walk after I got done with a flight,” he says. “Finally, I bit the bullet and said I need to go and get it fixed.”
While undergoing physical therapy at Fort Belvoir, Va., Davis learned about the Warrior Retreat at Bull Run, a sprawling 11,000-square-foot house on 37 acres in Haymarket, Va., which gives wounded soldiers a place to escape the sometimes brutal recovery process. Operated by the nonprofit Serve Our Willing Warriors, the retreat automatically comes with a benefit that many soldiers have never before experienced: a seated, multicourse meal prepared by a chef in a state-of-the-art kitchen.
“For the most part, they eat very poorly. They go to four or five appointments a day. They’re rushing around. They grab food where they can,” Larry Zilliox, a U.S. Air Force veteran who founded the Visiting Chef Program at Bull Run in 2015. “We bring really nice high-end chefs to them to prepare meals.”
Davis’s stay at Bull Run in early July was actually his second. He and his wife, Dawn, learned a secret about the dinner after their first visit in January: Don’t fill out the advance questionnaire with the idea of pleasing the pickiest palates in your family. You’ll end up with steak and fries for dinner. Not that Davis was complaining. “I’ve never had steak that good,” he says.
For his July visit, however, Dawn made sure to emphasize that her husband is more adventurous at the table than she and their five children. On the questionnaire, she indicated that her husband would be interested in game birds, rabbit, raw oysters and ceviche, a personal favorite.
“I really wanted it to be something special for him,” she says, “because they’re not things that we normally would eat.”
Ken Gardner, executive event chef for the Warrior Retreat, was charged with conceiving and executing Davis’s dinner in a kitchen tricked out with a six-burner professional range, several ovens and a large, two-tiered center island with its own sink and a built-in microwave. Much like everything else at Bull Run, the entire kitchen was donated to Serve Our Willing Warriors and its founders, John and Shirley Dominick. Even Gardner and his two sous chefs donated their time on this Sunday afternoon. (Incidentally, a second home is under construction on the property, so the retreat will be able to host two soldier families at once.)
“These folks that come through here are going through hell,” says sous chef Dan Krupp, a sales executive for a medical supply company. The team, he says, will do anything “we can do to make their time comfortable and just normal, because they don’t have normal.”
A former butcher and meat manager at Giant and a self-taught chef, Gardner didn’t just prepare Davis a multicourse meal, including shrimp-and-scallop ceviche and roasted quail with a leek-fennel-and-saffron sauce. He also prepared kid-friendly alternatives for the soldier’s three girls and two boys. Think: ceviche without the lime-cooked shellfish or a chicken version of the bony quail entree.
Cooking for wounded soldiers is not like cooking for guests at a fine-dining restaurant. Some rules are unbreakable at Bull Run: No alcohol during the meal. No meats cooked rare or medium-rare. No ceviche that hasn’t been marinated in lime juice for hours. The goal is not only to prepare the soldiers a great meal, but also not to set back their recovery.
“We serve only water with dinner, including this dinner, when I’m thinking a glass of wine would work well with that. We don’t do that at all because we don’t know what their diet is like in the hospital. Alcohol could screw up their meds,” Zilliox says. “It’s a case of better safe than sorry.”
The cooking process is also more interactive at Bull Run. It’s a chance for the wounded warriors to take part in the preparation of their own meal. They might chop vegetables. They might peel carrots. Occasionally, if they have training, they might even get behind the stove and cook. Many of the soldiers who stay at Bull Run have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The volunteers here prefer to call it just post-traumatic stress, leaving out the disorder, as not to stigmatize a condition that the soldiers acquired while serving the country.
The soldiers with PTSD tend to keep to themselves, but something about the camaraderie of the kitchen, with its hierarchy and its focus on tasks, can give the visitors at Bull Run a safe place to talk about their experiences.
“It brings them together and they open up,” says Krupp, the volunteer sous chef. “It takes your mind off everything else, and then you’re among people who care, and it’s warm. There’s children running around. It’s back to that sense of normalcy that they don’t have on the base. At all.”
Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Heffron was diagnosed with PTSD about a year and a half ago after multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. Army. He said he ignored the symptoms for years — “at the cost of my family’s sanity.” But he’s now taking medication, which has improved life all around. In the days leading up to his March visit to Bull Run, Heffron’s schedule was a blur of doctor’s appointments, as many as three a day. He says he was super-stressed when he arrived at the property with his wife, Amberlynn, and their four boys and some friends.
Heffron didn’t have time to think about what he wanted for dinner. So he asked Sgt. 1st Class Juan Sanchez, an Army chef for the national security adviser, to “surprise me” for his meal.
“And surprise me indeed they did. Oh, my goodness. The food was phenomenal,” says Heffron, who devoured a multicourse meal that culminated with pork tenderloin with a side of mushroom risotto. “The food, I’m salivating just thinking about some of it.”
As a fringe benefit, Heffron’s oldest son, 11-year-old Asher, helped make the risotto. Asher has been cooking since age 6, says his dad. “For such a young age, he was amazing,” says Sanchez about his sous chef. “He’s got a future.”
Unfortunately, Ryan Davis’s eldest son, 9-year-old Britton, didn’t attend the dinner that Gardner prepared for the family. Dawn had to take her son to a nearby emergency room after he complained about stomach pains. (It turned out to be nothing, though doctors put Britton on a liquid diet for 24 hours; Gardner saved Dawn’s meal so that she could enjoy it later.) This left Davis as the only adult at the table, supervising four children, all 6 years old or younger. He seemed determined to savor every bite, no matter how often his kids fidgeted or fussed about their food.
“It was the first time I had quail, and it was delicious,” says Davis, who just retired from the military after 10 years. “And it doesn’t taste like chicken. It does taste a little bit like pigeon.”
The dessert course was designed specifically to make everyone in the Davis family happy, whether they said they wanted chocolate cake, chocolate chip cookies or chocolate mint ice cream. Gardner created a chocolate mint and chocolate chip cookie dough cheesecake, plating it with a zigzag of dark chocolate syrup and a mint chocolate truffle.
“You may eat that any way you want!” Gardner told the children.
Davis’s youngest child, Madelyn, 2, turned her dessert into a cheesecake sculpture, while Sawyer, 6, barely touched his. “I never like cheesecake,” he announced to everyone and to no one. Davis seemed to almost float above the commotion, as he polished off his own dessert. He pronounced it sweet. “On more levels than one,” he added.
As Davis spoke those words, he practically beamed in his chair.
More from Food: