Small-town chef now serving meals in Secretary of Defense Executive Dining Room
December 6, 2011
Only the U.S. Army could take a young chef from a small, Midwestern civic center and move him to an executive dining room at the world's largest office building. And that's exactly what happened for Peru, Ind., native Kevin Arwood, now a specialist in the U.S. Army.
Arwood, who had worked in the food industry for years in jobs ranging from grocery stores to restaurants to the Kellogg Company selling cereal, decided earlier this year to join the Army.
At the time, he was working as the director for the Peru Civic Center, juggling multiple tasks that included everything from renting out the center to cooking meals.
"I had thought about joining the military before, but it just never happened," Arwood said. "Then my brother joined the National Guard, and that made me start thinking about it again."
Arwood visited the Kokomo, Ind., recruiting station and found his discussions with the recruiters to be motivational.
"If I had any doubts about joining the Army, I had none after talking to Sgt. 1st Class (Jacob) Gilmer," Arwood said.
One of Arwood's biggest concerns was his age.
"I felt old in Basic (Combat Training)," the 33-year-old Arwood said. "I was concerned about being much older than the other Soldiers."
But his age and experience paid great dividends. Arwood was able to join the Army under the Army Civilian Acquired Skills Program (ACASP), which matches civilians who have certain certifications to do the same military occupational specialty in the Army.
"It's a very unique contract," said Gilmer, the 2011 Accessions Command Noncommissioned Officer of the Year. "Basically, the Army recognizes that civilians can have certifications in a trade that are valuable. If they can do the same job in the Army, then that experience and the certifications transfer immediately."
To be a food operations specialist in the Army through ACASP, Arwood needed an associate degree in culinary arts and at least one year of work experience in that field.
Because Arwood met those requirements, he received a higher bonus, was able to get his student loans from culinary school repaid, and entered as an E-4 (Specialist).
"He knew that he was going to take a pay cut to join the Army," Gilmer said. "That led us down the road we travel with every applicant: try to help them the best way we can. And that led to my researching the ACASP program, which Specialist Arwood fit perfectly."
Arwood attended his Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at Fort Lee, Va., where he learned to use a kitchen in a dining facility, brushed up on some cooking and baking basics and learned how to use a mobile kitchen to cook in the field.
"As a field exercise, we had to cook dinner for 600 to 800 people using the small kitchen," Arwood said.
Arwood graduated first in his AIT class, earning him honor graduate status.
Two weeks into AIT, one of the instructors asked Arwood if he was open to job opportunities that may come up during his training.
"He was pretty vague about it," Arwood said. "I really didn't know what he was talking about."
Then two days later, he was pulled out of class again and told that there was a job opening to serve in the Pentagon in the Secretary of Defense Executive Dining Room.
"I met with two of the people who work there, and they talked to me about what it is like," Arwood said.
Arwood is one of 25 cooks in the executive dining room. Up to this point, the VIPs he's served include brides and grooms when he ran his own catering company and some town leaders when he ran the Peru Civic Center. Now, he's serving meals to top Pentagon leaders and senior executives.
"Cooking is cooking," Arwood said. "I treat every customer the same. They all deserve the same respect no matter who they are."
Arwood said the executive dining room is not a regular dining room.
"Most people eat in their offices," he said, noting that while there are dining areas where people can go sit to eat, many of the senior leaders are very busy and often eat at their desks.
Just like regular dining facilities, there is a menu card for the executive dining room, but Arwood will have the chance to showcase his culinary imagination.
"There is some leeway," Arwood said. "There are certainly areas for creativity."
After only a few weeks on the job, Arwood has already cooked for a special dinner hosted by the Secretary of Defense and helped bake a showpiece cake for the Combined Federal Campaign kick-off at the Pentagon with his sponsor, Staff Sgt. Orlando Serna.
Recently, Arwood returned to Kokomo on the Hometown Recruiting Assistance Program (HRAP) and visited Kokomo High School. He made donuts for home economics classes with a recipe straight from the Army menu recipe collection. (The link to the recipe is http://www.quartermaster.army.mil/jccoe/publications/recipes/section_d/D01800.pdf)
"Specialist Arwood ran the class all day long, and he got to share his story," Gilmer said. "This led to nine leads and two appointments. One of those leads will be enlisting soon."
Arwood said he is excited about working at the Pentagon and his family enjoys living in the Washington, D.C., area. Arwood, his wife, Abby, 3-year old son, Grant, and 18-month old daughter, Claudia, will live at Fort Belvoir, Va., although for now, they are in temporary housing until a home is available at Fort Belvoir.
"The biggest challenge is navigating in a big new city," Arwood said. "I know it will be for my wife, too. But we'll find our way around. After a couple of weeks, I'm only now starting to feel comfortable navigating around the Pentagon. But I'm excited to be living in the Washington area and to be serving the country."
After his two-year tour at the Pentagon, Arwood would like to be a general officer's aide. In that role, he would not only get to cook but also would plan events.
"I would really like to do that," Arwood said. "It would be a great honor."