TV chef Guy Fieri serves up thanks at JBLM
November 5, 2012
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- Smack dab in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a cramped, steamy hospital kitchen, where meals are prepared for thousands, Spc. Christopher Lauber met his first celebrity.
The two even made dinner together.
"It was a great experience," said Lauber, beaming with delight after helping famed TV chef Guy Fieri fix an evening meal of chicken tetrazzini and Salisbury steak for hungry eaters at Madigan Army Medical Center's dining facility.
"He's really the first celebrity I've ever met in person, and it was just amazing," added Lauber, a nutrition specialist and the production and service noncommissioned officer for the facility.
Fieri, perhaps best known as the host of Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, a series in which the spiky-haired restaurateur sheds light on little-known eateries across the country, visited with Soldiers and civilians here Nov. 3.
The chef was in the area filming for the show, during which he toured local establishments in Olympia, Puyallup and Seattle, when he stopped over for his brief visit.
"You've got to have the feeling of giving back. Everybody should be doing this," said Fieri, still standing in the Madigan kitchen, where he cooked for nearly an hour with its staff and spiced up the facility's chicken tetrazzini recipe with additional ingredients, including kale, to enhance the dish's appeal, flavor and offering of vitamins.
"Something we should all understand and appreciate as Americans is that the opportunities we have in this country and the reason we have freedom is because of the men and women that are in the Armed Forces, and have been in the Armed Forces, and will continue to be in the Armed Forces," he said. "For me, one of the greatest ways to get to somebody, or to help somebody, is through food.
"I mean, food is a common denominator of all people."
As Fieri bounced from one end of the tight cooking space to the next -- from the kettle back to the cutting counter -- he talked hometowns, local restaurants and life experiences with the cooks, in addition to passing along some kitchen tips and tricks and praising the sacrifices of military men and women.
But life as a cook, he explained, can sometimes entail its own set of sacrifices. Hidden away in the heat and commotion of a commercial kitchen that serves diners by the hundreds, cooks often work hard and under pressure for long hours, but typically for very little recognition, if any at all.
"These cats don't get the love," Fieri said. "These men and women are back here working it hard, and it's hot in here, and they're doing volume of work, and they're in early and out late."
Whether sautéing mushrooms in a massive, 60-gallon kettle or shaking hands in the dining hall with Soldiers wounded in combat, Fieri's visit centered purely on showing his gratitude for what service men and women do every day.
Much of his heart, though, went out to the cooks.
"I hope they recognize that culinary, which I don't think was always recognized as a real important position, is an incredibly important position," he said. "This impact they make on the Soldier's life, this feeling of comfort food…to me, is just overwhelming.
"If you understand how hard it is to cook for 3,000 people, this is not a simple job. We're not talking about a sauté pan; we're talking about a 60-gallon steam kettle."
Lauber, who works as both a nutritionist and a cook for Madigan, said it was heartening to see that even high-profile icons can still make the time to offer their thanks in meaningful ways to the Armed Forces.
"It's comforting to know that a celebrity, busy as he is, is willing to come recognize people and do something like this," said Lauber, who occasionally watches Fieri's show and remembers one episode in particular during which the chef ate at a few local spots near his hometown in the Salt Lake City area.
Fieri's show is the last thing Sgt. 1st Class Gabriel Littlefield watches most nights. The senior sergeant, who works for the Warrior Transition Battalion, was just one of a small group of Soldiers to spend some quality time with the chef after he left the kitchen -- many of whom were wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"To me personally, it means quite a bit," Littlefield said. "To come down and take the time -- and you know he's busy -- but for him to come down and do that means a lot. It's real special.
"With everything that's going on right now, he cares, and it shows that he cares."
As they snacked on cookies made after one of the star's own recipes, the Soldiers shared their stories with Fieri, detailing the incidents that brought them to a place dedicated to mental and physical rehabilitation and healing.
"It's definitely a big morale boost for the Soldiers," said Nathan Gants, a Madigan cook who served in the Army. "Sometimes, being a Soldier, you feel like no one appreciates what you do, and then you get a celebrity like Guy to come in and show his love for the military, and it's just wonderful."
"He was a real cool, laid back guy," added Gants, who cooked side-by-side with Fieri and fellow cook of 36 years, James Lowery Jr.
"I'm glad I got a chance to have that as an experience."
And as for the chicken tetrazzini, the cooks aim to keep the new twist on their classic dish, kale and all.
"Kale is a whole different product that we added to it, and we're going to keep adding it," Lowery said.