By Alex McVeigh, Pentagram Staff WriterMay 15, 2009
Deep in the Pentagon, near the Department of the Army Corridor, 17 Soldiers spend their days performing a vital service for senior Army officials.
The staff of the Army Executive Dining Facility cooks for the Secretary of the Army, the Army Chief of Staff and other Army leaders, and they do it all with smiles on their faces. Whether it's serving meals to Secretary of the Army Pete Geren and guests of his, or just running a five-star establishment for the Pentagon's employees, these Soldiers are on the front lines of top-notch service.
At 9 a.m., the kitchen is almost deserted. Several Soldiers are folding napkins and wiping down plates adorned with the Army seal to remove any possible water stains.
Other Soldiers arrange table settings, vacuum and run a few loads through the dishwasher. ''It's a very enjoyable job, the hardest part is just balancing everything," said Staff Sgt. Zachary Brubaker, a former Soldier with The Old Guard.
''Paying attention to detail is a high priority, just like it is in The Old Guard. You've got to be on your P's and Q's because you're working for the top people in the Army."
The 17 Soldiers basically run their own restaurant. They handle everything from cleaning to dishwashing at the end of the day. With top level clients, you might expect the staff to be strained while meeting the demand, but the exact opposite is true. Jokes fly back and forth between the staff at all times, and no one is above getting a prank played on them, though retaliation is inevitable.
It's this chemistry between staff that allows them to stay relaxed during the rushes, and enjoy their jobs. ''I love working with the people here, and the generals and Secretary Geren are great guests," said Staff Sgt. Paul Sotelo. ''It's pretty easy to keep a smile on your face, not a lot of people have the privilege to work for the Secretary of the Army."
Head of the kitchen is Sgt. 1st Class Brad Turner, or as viewers of the Pentagon Channel might know him, ''The Grill Sergeant."
The self-titled show is in its third season, and features Turner demonstrating cooking techniques that he has learned during his time in the Army.
The other Soldiers in the AEDF aren't fazed by having a celebrity in their midst, just the opposite, he's often the butt of jokes about his show. ''The atmosphere here is very light, and I take jabs all the time about the show," Turner said. ''I'm very easy going, but also very serious about the food that goes out there. The atmosphere here is light, which helps us not get too tense during heavy times."
The chemistry from the staff comes from careful selection, which is done by Chief Warrant Officer Verona Williams. She gives them a thorough interview process, which covers everything from culinary to interpersonal skills.
''You can be a very talented person, but if you don't get along with people, you're a distraction," Williams said. ''We have great NCOs in here, they're good leaders because they were well-trained, they are all about accomplishing their mission."
As the lunchtime hour approaches, the kitchen gradually gets busier. Turner walks around fixing little things, like removing a pirouette from a cheesecake platter, because ''it made the plate look too busy." Drink glasses are filled, salads are assembled and the hot food is prepared.
When it's time to bring out the main course - today it's salmon with a dill beurre blanc sauce served with rice and asparagus - an assembly line of sorts is set up to get the food out efficiently.
Wednesday, guests at the Army Executive Dining Facility featured a delegation from Greece, a luncheon hosted by Secretary of the Army Pete Geren and a meeting of congressional wives. On normal days, the printer at the far end of the kitchen would be spitting out tickets from regular diners, but due to the amount of groups present, the facility is closed to the regular public.
''With so much going on today, we can't risk falling behind," Turner said. ''The top officials are our first priority." On normal days, guests would be treated with a lagniappe, which is a Creole word for something free.
Turner thinks of a specialty every day to serve to guests, it might be cornbread, or garlic rolls with pesto, or an assortment of fresh cheeses. Sgt. 1st Class Solomon Gilbert serves as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the AEDF, which he calls the most visible establishment he has been in charge of.
''A facility like this really gives us a chance to tailor an individual dish to the customer, like a normal civilian restaurant," he said. ''For example, here salads are big. People are back and forth for meetings all day, so we try not to give them a real heavy meal that will weigh them down for the rest of the day."
By 1 p.m., the lunch rush has closed, and the Soldiers are in full cleaning mode.
Staff Sgt. Jobeth Yambao and Spc. Wayne Darden work the dish pit, and the wait staff cleans the dining area. They are a very self-sufficient group, running a high profile establishment with limited staff.
''It's nice to see new faces, but we have plenty of regular customers," Brubaker said. ''It's pretty neat to go up to people and ask 'The usual'' and they nod."
The other Soldiers who work at the AEDF are Sgts. 1st Class Patrick Lovato and Vilaykone Sayanorath; Staff Sgts. Marcella Reader-Childs, John-Joseph Williams, Vincent Touchet and Donna Alston; Spcs. Marc-Paul Susa and William Stewart and Pfc. John Deane.
While their business consists primarily of catering to top-level Army officials, kitchen staff prepares every meal like it's going to the president of the United States.
''When we step in the kitchen, it doesn't matter if the guest is a four-star general or a civilian, they're going to get our best effort every time," Turner said. ''This is the big leagues, and we need our A-game every day."