The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
December 2004
FEATURE
 
 

Kitchen Patrol:
Veterans in the Kitchen
 

BY JIM BELSHAW
 
Chef Jim Shott: In Search of Pastry Precision

Almost by definition, the path from U.S. Marine to French pastry chef cannot be a simple straight line. Not only poles apart, each environment comes with a long list of disparate expectations and demands. Nothing about such a path suggests an easy journey. Nonetheless, Jim Shott took it.
 

He started down the path about five years ago. After retiring from the Marine Corps in 1992, he continued to work in the addiction-counseling field at the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Then, after the department moved to Andrews Air Force Base, Shott started having flashbacks to his Vietnam combat experiences.
 
“One of my patients talked about places that I had forgotten about, then one day the sound of a diesel engine and the rotor blade of a chopper set me into an immobilizing depression.” He entered into a VA treatment program and began weekly visits to the Silver Spring, Maryland, Vet Center.
 
“In the process, it was about two years before I could even consider doing any kind of work,” he said. “I had to resign from my government job.”
 
As he began to regain his footing, he read an article about a new industry, the personal chef service, in which an entrepreneur might serve as the personal chef for clients who wanted quality food but who lacked time to prepare it. He had always wanted to get into the food service business and even had some experience as a cook.
 
“I always loved to cook,” Shott said. “My Boy Scout cooking badge came about because my Irish mother taught me how to make a meal. After I got back from Vietnam, I was working at an Officers Club for a while doing short-order cooking on the barbecue. I always loved to do it.”
 
He investigated a web site offering training in the personal chef association and decided to try it. After signing up with the association, Shott started a company called Dinner’s Ready in 1999. 
 
“It started slow, but then I got clients through word of mouth,” he said. “I didn’t have any money for advertising. Starting a business from scratch is tough. There was a desire to be my own person, though, to be independent, to take risks that were calculated risks. There was a lot of motivation there.”
 
Wanting to raise the bar, Shott began looking at the art and science of fine pastries. “It’s always intrigued me how those pastry chefs could make such wonderful desserts,” he said.
 
He decided to enroll in the nine-month Pastry Arts program at L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland. Shott soon realized he would have to devote all his time to the school; then circumstances forced a setback.
 
“I injured my right elbow while working,” he said. “Then I started losing clients because I wasn’t able to do the work.”
 
After several months of physical therapy, Shott’s elbow improved, and he re-enrolled at the pastry school. But another setback awaited him, forcing him to drop out in late 2002. “I needed surgery,” he said. “I couldn’t use my right arm effectively.”
 
About a year later, Shott enrolled again. It had been a long time since he was in a school setting. He found the challenges formidable. “At age 57, I found the pace was very fast for me,” Shott said. “It was long days on my feet. The main challenge came from the standpoint that I had to learn to be a student all over again.”
 
His PTSD added another level of difficulty.

“I have trouble remembering things on a short-term basis,” he said. “I do it a few times and I get it down okay, but studying for exams was difficult. I knew the material, but translating it to taking a test was a real problem. I did well with the practical experience, and I got very good grades on projects and presentations. My senior instructor understood and encouraged me.”
 
The teaching method of the school’s founder made it even more difficult. He wanted his students to learn the way he had learned, and his way included no handouts of recipes and no textbooks in the routine. He dictated the recipes to students. They wrote them down, in effect, creating a technical manual in their own words.
 
“Writing down the recipes was tough,” Shott said. “We had a three-ring binder we had to turn in every five weeks for a grade on the material and the techniques and descriptions. It became our own textbook, if you will. It was our own way of note keeping so it made sense to us. That’s how the founder learned in France. You wrote the recipe, you wrote the technique, you wrote the little side notes on why you do certain things and why you do it at a certain pace.”
 
Before he began, when he had wondered about how pastry chefs created desserts, he had not known about the most basic differences in the creation of food that often did double-duty as art.
 
“What I like about the pastry field is the exactness,” he said. “The ingredients are all weighed on a baker’s scale. Commonly, textbooks call for half a cup of this and one teaspoon of that. When we do recipes, it’s ten ounces of flour, two ounces of water. Everything is measured precisely.”
 
Jim Shott has graduated now and has a three-tiered goal. He wants to open a commercial kitchen; he wants to concentrate on pastries; and he hopes to offer services to local businesses for meetings and special events. The third element will fulfill a sense of giving back.
 
“I want the commercial kitchen to be a teaching kitchen in which I can offer classes,” he said. “The prospect of the future with this business is exciting for me. I would like to have a site where veterans could come to learn.”
 
Shott is developing a corporate catering element called Creative Cuisine. He’s working in Gaithersburg, Maryland, as  a pastry chef for the Classic German Bakery.

Bronze, Purple, Red & Gold: The Award-winning Wines of John Kerr
BY JIM DOYLE        
 
Like many Vietnam veterans, John Kerr has a carton full of photographs from his time in country. One shows the hole in the roof of his helicopter made by a VC machine gun that would have taken his head off if he hadn’t moved a few centimeters to take a photograph himself. Another shows his wrist with a bracelet of tail rotor chains. Helicopter crew members know that each bracelet is testimony to being shot down. John Kerr wore three.
 
“We took in live ones and lifted out the dead ones,” Kerr said in an interview during a tour at a cooperative winery in Santa Maria, California, where he crafts his award-winning Chardonnay and Syrah wines. 
 
Pointing to a stack of oak barrels, he described the markings burned into the casks. “The ‘MT’ means ‘medium toast,’” Ken said. “It means the barrel has been slightly toasted inside, helping it impart flavor to the wine. I pay extra for my barrels because I only buy barrels that have been coopered from oak that has been aged for three years. Generally barrels are made from oak that is aged for 12-18 months. I like the extra aging because it imparts a better flavor to my wines. French oak comes from older forests, but we have  discovered a large grove of American oak in Pennsylvania that grows in high limestone content soil. It’s as good as the French oak.”
 
Kerr is a charter member and life member of Santa Barbara, California, VVA Chapter 218 and served as Southern District Director when the California State Council was reformed in 1986. 
 
His unique blend of several vintage years of Syrah grapes that he labeled “Cambodian Red” recently garnered him a Gold Medal at the Cloverdale Citrus Festival. Reserve Chardonnay has been judged the Best Chardonnay in Santa Barbara County for the last 12 years.
 
Kerr prefers to produce quality wines that cost less than $20 a bottle. “People like to get change back. It makes them feel like they’re getting a good product at a bargain price,” he said.
 
His Gold Medal-winning Cambodian Red includes a label that clearly describes the origin of the name: “Cambodian Red has many meanings for Vietnam veterans,” the label reads. “The reddish clay soil of the country covered areas of operations, the LZs, and became impregnated in your skin.”
 
John “The Bear” Kerr II was drafted into the Army in 1969. He trained as a helicopter weapons specialist, aka a helicopter door gunner. In 22 months of Vietnam service Kerr accumulated more than 2,300 combat flight hours, was shot down three times, and was wounded. He was awarded the Bronze Star as well as a chest full of Air Medals. 
 
In 1980, Kerr moved to Monterey and began working in the field of viticulture. Today, he and his wife, Joan, own and operate J. Kerr Wines, a small winery specializing in Chardonnay and Syrah.
 
According to wine specialist Tom Hill, who writes a column on wines for the Los Olivos Wine & Spirits Emporium: “When you talk to many of the Santa Barbara Syrah winemakers about what winemaker they respect and admire, John Kerr’s name always seems to come up. This wine was impressive, mightily impressive.”
 
Kerr’s other honors include 1999 Best of Show for a Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, Silver Medals in 1998 and 1999 for both his Chardonnay and Syrah, and another Silver Medal for his non-vintage Cambodian Red.
 
Kerr, who was elected Southern District Director of the California State Council in 1986, donates a percentage of his profits from Cambodian Red to help disabled and disadvantaged veterans. The funds are administered by a panel of local volunteer veterans who oversee and review applications for assistance.
 
For more information about John Kerr’s wines, write to John Kerr Wines, P.O. Box 7539, Santa Maria, CA 93456; call 805-688-5337; or email jkwines@msn.com
 


Rubbing It In: Paul Egan’s Recipe for Success
BY JIM BELSHAW
 
Every guy worth his can of charcoal starter fluid dutifully troops out to the backyard in the summer. Some routinely produce grand feasts, delighting and maybe even stunning close family members. Others apply their own scorched earth policy interpretation to “blackened” chicken, fish, burgers, hot dogs, and other hapless mainstays of the American backyard barbecue cookbook. Few wind up inventing their own spices. Fewer still build Internet businesses out of the smoke curling skyward in the backyard. Paul Egan is one of the few. Founder of Paul’s Barbecue Spices & Rubs and a former executive director of VVA, Egan went out to the backyard a hobbyist and came in an entrepreneur.
 
“It began as a hobby on weekends,” he said. “It was a diversion. Then outdoor cooking led to fiddling around with different kinds of spices on grilled and smoked barbecued foods. I got to be pretty good at it, and pretty soon I had developed 12 different recipes for dry barbecue spices. In the barbecue business, it’s called a rub because you rub it into the meat you’re cooking.”
 
A dry rub is a combination of spices consisting of one part salt (there are several different types and flavors) and one part sugar (ditto) with added spices and herbs to give the mixture a distinct flavor. Before cooking, the rub is first sprinkled onto the meat, fish, or poultry and then massaged (rubbed) into the tissue along with some type of oil or mustard.
 
Egan began with grilling, then moved on to “real barbecue, which is very different.” Grilling is high heat and fast; smoking is low heat and slow. He read a lot. He learned and applied basic principles. He studied cookbooks and recipes and soon honed a sharpened sense of what he needed to produce quality barbecue. 
 
His web page, www.paulsbarbecue.com gives descriptions of Egan’s 12 dry rubs (Ballistic Bacon, Crispy Critter, For the Birds, High Noon Heat, How’s Bayou, If It Swims Feed It, to name a few) and provides a primer on grilling and smoking.
 
“I had no formal training,” Egan said. “I just did a lot of reading, and I enjoy barbecued food. You read enough recipes, you try enough recipes, and you start thinking, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ Then you start fiddling around with the stuff. You make a lot of mistakes, and you eat a lot of really rotten stuff. But it’s worked out well. It was a great hobby and now it’s a small business.”
 
The transition from hobby to business came about two years ago. Friends came to his house for barbecue and said it was good enough to sell. He was encouraged, but cautious, too.
 
“I was never prepared to get into the catering business because that’s a whole different thing,” he said. “And I wasn’t prepared to quit my day job, either.”
 
Egan went to a spice company in Baltimore with his recipes, signed legal agreements to protect his product secrets, and began the process that would turn a hobby into something larger.
 
He had never been in a business situation before and had no knowledge of what was required. He hired an attorney, set up a corporation, got someone to design a logo, and then registered it as a trademark.
 
“I was perhaps naively surprised at the many technical steps needed to get this thing up and going—from the incorporation to the trademark to the labels to choosing what kind of information we wanted on the labels, selecting the sizes of the bottles, deciding whether we wanted plastic or glass, deciding on those little pour things on the top, determining how much I’m going to charge for this stuff—all these myriad details you have to attend to before getting started.”
 
Egan and his wife attended to the details themselves. He did not go to the Small Business Administration. “Having worked in veterans affairs for a long time and having been involved with veterans in small businesses, I had some understanding of what needed to be done,” he said.
 
On his Internet page appears a photo of Egan standing next to a large, 475-pound, water-cooled, wood-burning barbecue. He said he is a stalwart advocate of wood as the perfect barbecue fuel.
 
“Wood is perfect,” he said. “I like to use hickory. I don’t like mesquite because over a long period of time it imparts a bitter taste. Once, I thought it would be a good idea to use cherry. So I smoked a turkey. It came out tasting like a ham. Maple is good, apple is good. But always use wood and always use a log. You want the greenest possible wood, so it’s moist and will give off more smoke.”
 
Asked about advice for the fledgling entrepreneur, he said a detailed business plan was a must— initial costs, inventory, housing and control costs, liability insurance—all of it falling under a primary rule: Expect the unexpected, because it surely will pop up and cost more than you anticipated. “We’re an Internet business now,” he said. “It’s not a big business. It’s a niche business, but people who have used the product always come back for more. I know it’s a good product, so I wasn’t surprised by the people who continue to use it.”
 


Myron Becker: A Number One Sauce-making Business
BY JIM BELSHAW  
 
Myron Becker’s culinary career began at a young age, when his mother inducted him into the fellowship of children known as the Clean Plate Club. “I was brought up to eat everything that was offered to me, and I wasn’t allowed to say I don’t like this and I don’t like that,” he said. “My mother insisted I eat everything.”
 
By the time he joined the Navy in 1962 at the age of 18, Becker already had an “inquiring palate.” His first duty station, a small base outside Yokohama, expanded that palate to include a wide array of Asian food. He fell in love with Japanese food, an added benefit to an experience that at first glance looked just fine to him anyway. 
 
“I’m short—5 feet 4 inches,” Becker said. “I get off the plane and all the Japanese nationals are the same height I am. I thought, ‘I’m going to love this place. I’m normal here.’ So my disposition about being in Japan was immediately positive.”
 
Trained as a radio intercept operator, he worked with the Naval security group and the National Security Agency. While his buddies routinely trooped over to the PX to eat cheeseburgers, Myron Becker was in Yokohama, learning about the cuisine that would lead to a successful business venture in which he would create and sell his own line of Asian sauces, marketed to upscale institutions and individual customers www.chefmyrons.com
 
But that career wouldn’t come quickly.
 
After leaving the Navy, Becker went to college, earned a psychology degree, and worked as a counselor and therapist in VA hospitals. Eventually, he “burned out on the human misery business” and started working in catering businesses and restaurants. His first restaurant job was at a Chinese place called The Wok, where Becker spent weeks chopping garlic and ginger before anyone let him get his hands on a wok. This first small step into the food business fit a pattern he would stay with over the years. 

“I’d like to say I was proactive about it, but in a way I was reactive,” Becker said. “I had my background in psychology, and I would work for some social service agency program. In between those times I’d work in a restaurant. So I didn’t jump off. I dipped my toe in.”
 

One day friends asked him to cater their wedding. Becker found he was good at it. Slowly, he did more catering, gathering equipment piece by piece along the way, getting better and more comfortable with each catering experience. His last “real” job, a final counseling assignment, was in 1983.
 
Since then, it’s been “food all the way.” He began with a pushcart in Amherst, Mass. Becker had one product—Myron’s Number One Yakitori. 
 
“Yakitori in Japan is sort of a street food,” he said. “It’s very common and very popular and basically what we call teriyaki—skewers of chicken over coals with sauce or whatever. We created a sort of mobile yakitori house and pretty soon we were a fixture at things like the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals and art festivals, those kinds of things.”
 
In order to make the yakitori unique, Becker had to develop a sauce. He had something of a surreptitious background upon which to build.
 
“I learned about sauces by sneaking into kitchens when I was in Japan,” he said. “Once a spy, always a spy, I guess. I used to hide behind trash barrels and watch the chefs make these sauces. What distinguished one yakitori house from another was the sauce. They all had proprietary sauces. Back here, I developed mine pretty much the way the Japanese did, and I made them to taste pretty much the way I remembered them tasting in Yokohama.”
 
Customers at the concession stand liked the taste, so much so that they started asking for the sauce to take home in bottles. The most telling clue that change was in the air came when a young mother dumped out the milk in her baby’s bottle and asked Becker to fill it with sauce.
 
That was the beginning of the next phase in Myron’s Fine Foods, a business offering a line of Asian sauces aimed at the institutional food service market, restaurants, and retail markets.
 
“We tend to market more effectively in upscale speciality stores and natural food stores,” he said. “We’re pretty well distributed there, but we have some supermarkets in the Northeast carrying our product, too.”
 
Becker went back to school and earned a degree in business management, a step he said is critical to success.
 
“If you can’t read a balance sheet, income statement, understand target marketing and niche marketing, and all of those things, I can’t imagine how you could run a business like ours,” he said.
 
Becker emphasizes the importance of niche marketing, pointing to the enormous size of the food marketplace and how it is dominated by a handful of large corporations.  “If you don’t have the marketing capital the big guys do, you have to focus on specific niches,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re like a drop of water on a piece of blotter paper. You just get sucked dry like a sponge. For me, it was a tremendous learning experience. You start off with the temptation to be all things to all people and one of the most challenging parts of the learning curve is to have focus and limit yourself and be disciplined. I’m still learning that.”
 
Becker started the company with $10,000 and said if he had to do it all over again, he would find more capital before striking out into the marketplace. He thinks the company would be “ten times the size it is now if we’d had significant capital from the beginning.”
 
He continues to develop new sauces, and recently a large restaurant chain asked the company to develop a product. Becker enjoys working on the research and development of new products, but said the work is constrained by the level of financial resources available.
 
Nonetheless, he is pleased with the company’s growth and viability.  “It’s been a success from the standpoint that we’re alive and relatively well,” he said. “That’s testimony to the quality of our product and the demand from the general public as well as professional chefs for a good, high-quality line of Asian marinades and sauces. Has it been a success from the standpoint that I’m filthy rich? No. On the other hand, I get to go to a lot of shows and eat good food.”

Former Marine Marcel Desaulniers: One Great American Chef’s Story

BY MARC LEEPSON
 
The draft had its way with hundreds of thousands of American men during the Vietnam War, yanking them from myriad walks of life and processing them into lean, mean fighting machines. That includes a few thousand men who were drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps. Among the few and the proud Marine Corps Vietnam War draftees was a tall, skinny guy from Woonsocket, Rhode Island, who found himself conscripted into the Semper Fi fraternity on February 2, 1966. That was seven months after he’d graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New Haven, Connecticut, and had taken a job cooking at the Colony Club on Park Avenue in New York City.
 
Marcel Desaulniers survived his Marine Corps tour of duty, went back to cooking, and by the early nineties had become one of the most accomplished and acclaimed chefs in America, renowned for many culinary skills, especially his dessert creations. The executive chef and co-owner of the much-admired Trellis restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia, Desaulniers has a long list of accomplishments in the high-powered food world. A member of the American Academy of Chefs and the Honor Society of the American Culinary Foundation, he was the first chef from the South to be named by the James Beard Foundation as a Great American Chef.
 
Desaulniers has written more than a dozen cookbooks, including two that received James Beard Awards, Death by Chocolate and The Burger Meisters. Aside from many appearances on network morning news shows and cooking shows including Julia Child’s, he’s also hosted two of his own popular television shows, on chocolate and hamburgers. Desaulniers, the late Julia Child once said, “is one of the great dessert makers in the country.”
 
Back in February 1966, the freshly minted draftee known to his fellow Marines as “Frenchie” was just another nervous guy on a plane heading from New York City to “somewhere down south,” he told us in a recent interview. “It was my first airplane flight ever. I don’t know exactly where we flew to, but after we landed they put us on a bus and they arranged to make sure we got to Parris Island in the middle of the night.”
 
Desaulniers survived boot camp, he says, primarily because of his previous educational experiences. “All of my schooling, with the exception of the Culinary Institute, had been at parochial schools,” he said. “In high school, I had the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, and they were good training for the Marines. I never got abused in the Marine Corps like I got abused by them. So I knew how to keep my mouth shut and I got by.”
 
Next came infantry training at Camp Lejeune, after which Desaulniers caught a break. “I was really lucky because instead of going to the staging battalion at Camp Pendleton, I was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, which was forming to go to Vietnam,” he said. “So, instead of spending three weeks at Pendleton, and then being in Vietnam, we trained at Pendleton for that whole summer, from June until the middle of September, and then we got on a troop ship. We didn’t land in Vietnam until December of ’66.”
 
That lucky break continued in country, where Desaulniers served with the same unit during his entire tour. “When I left, I was still with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines,” he said. That was a good thing. “Outside of all the bad things that happened over there—losing friends—in terms of a military experience, I couldn’t have asked for better. For a guy who had never fired even a BB gun in his life, I feel very fortunate that I’d been in the Marines and had a good unit and good officers.”
 
Desaulniers put in his time in I Corps, including stints in Phu Bai, Khe Sanh (before the siege), and Cam Lo. It was an eventful tour, but Desaulniers came through it without a Purple Heart. “I didn’t get a scratch; well, I got some scratches,” he said. “I fell down a couple of times and a piece of elephant grass stuck in my hand. I never lost a day out in the field for any injuries.”
 
He came home late in October 1967, got married to his long-time girlfriend, and mustered out of the Marine Corps on February 1, 1968. He went back to New York and immediately found a job cooking at the Pierre Hotel. “Within a week after getting out of the Marine Corps I was back in New York cooking,” Desaulniers said, “after two years away from any kind of kitchen.”
 
Desaulniers did no cooking whatsoever in the Marines. “I never did KP, even,” he said. “All I did was heat up C rations, and I never even got creative with the C rations. It was as if I had never cooked. And the guys would kid me about it. I guess my passion was at a level of cooking that this wasn’t even close. Why fake it?”
 
The young Vietnam veteran chef moved to Williamsburg after his wife became pregnant. He took a job cooking for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Four years later, he went into the food brokerage business with a friend. That lasted six years. “I was going stir crazy selling frozen French fries,” Desaulniers said. “So I got back in the biz and opened the Trellis in 1980.” The rest is history. A decade later, the Trellis had gained a reputation as one of Virginia’s finest restaurants and Desaulniers as one of the nation’s top chefs.

The chef doesn’t dwell on his experiences in the Vietnam War, but his service did affect his career in important ways. “Especially in the early years of the restaurant, it took a tremendous amount of discipline in order to be able to sustain the hours,” he said. “The first ten years I was in that place 12-14 hours a day. For the first couple of years, it was  12-15-hour days and it was six and seven days a week. It was awfully tough. Part of  having learned the discipline and going through what I went through in Vietnam helped steel me for something that wasn’t life threatening but was really hard.”

   

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