FORT RUCKER, Ala --The executive chef at The Landing and 5-Star Catering discovered his life’s calling as a child soaking up the energy created by his grandmother’s seemingly magical abilities in the kitchen at her home in Oregon.
That life’s calling led Robert Greene to Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in San Francisco, and jobs at Brix Restaurant and Gardens, and Bouchon Bakery in Napa, California, the Ritz-Carltons in Las Vegas and San Francisco, the W Hotel in San Francisco and, for the past year, Fort Rucker.
“I just love the energy in the kitchen,” Greene said. “I think that is what attracted me the most. I loved watching my grandma cook – just to be able to at a moment’s notice, off the top of her head, to make these dishes. She’s from the South, so she used ton of lard in her food.”
In that kitchen, complete with typical grandmother fixings such as pastel colors, “over-the-top” wallpaper and cast-iron Dutch ovens that had been in the family since the 1800s, “she’d fry chicken and make a huge mess, and I’d walk behind her and pick it up and eat it,” Greene said. “She taught me the basics of cooking – telling me what she was doing, and I would help. I learned to make biscuits from her and she showed me how to properly bread things. From an early age, I’ve spent most of my time in the kitchen.”
And he still spends most of his time in the kitchen.
“My wife (Cristy) and I were doing a survey, and it asked, ‘If I can’t find you, where will you be?’ Her answer: ‘Always in the kitchen,’” he said, adding that he’s also a bit of a handyman around the house and enjoys tinkering with cars, as well. “That’s where I’m comfortable. Every night is like ‘Iron Chef’ – I go through ingredients and make something. I cook for six – my wife and I have four kids: 11, 8, 3 and 5 months.”
Add that time cooking at home to the typical 12-hours a day at work, and it’s a good thing Greene loves his work.
“It’s a labor of love – I’ve been doing it for 15 years now,” he said, adding how he was star struck when working in Napa and was able to borrow ingredients “down the road from Bouchon at the French Laundry,” a restaurant he considers one of the best in the United States.
“Brix was my first official job when I graduated. I did an internship there and got to work with a really energetic chef,” he said. “We were busy, and that really helped developed my work ethic.”
But roughly a decade and a half of long hours working in those high-class establishments and two-hour commutes every day took its toll on Greene’s family life, and he and Cristy decided it was a time for a change.
“I loved my job, but I never saw my family,” he said. “So, I took a step back and said, ‘I need to reassess what I’m doing.’”
While the geographical limitations of the country pretty much made the general direction of that change to be to the east, the exact location was preordained. And people who enjoy Greene’s work at The Landing and 5-Star Catering can thank Cristy for the family’s landing in the Wiregrass.
“My sister-in-law lives out here,” he said. “I met my wife over 10 years ago at a grocery store, and she was getting ready to pack up and move out here because her sister was out here. I convinced her to stay, and that’s when we kind of developed. Since then, she was always probing at me that we should move out here and, finally, it came to that point and I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’
“I love it here because the people are nice – I love the genuine attitude people have -- and my commute is like 15 minutes,” he said of the drive from Enterprise. “I love the quiet – it’s just nicer and I don’t feel as disconnected as I did back in Bay area. I like the culture out here, the pace is a little bit slower and I can focus on my family, which his near and dear to me.”
Upon hitting the Wiregrass, Greene didn’t immediately land at The Landing. He spent some time working at the Rawls Restaurant in Enterprise and was interviewing with Corks and Cattle when he received word he’d gotten the job at Fort Rucker.
“I came out here hoping to kind of start a new life with my family and the stars just kind of aligned for me,” he said. “When I applied for this job, they held a cooking competition with a mystery basket (where the chefs don’t know what ingredients are available to them until the competition begins and then they have to make something out of them) and you had to impress them – it worked out pretty well for me.”
Greene’s first experience on the job at Fort Rucker came at the Black History Month luncheon in 2019, and it was a positive one. “I walked in and said, ‘OK, this is good – 300 people eating lunch.’”
He added that he’s also happy to be serving a new clientele as he’s moved from cooking for the rich-and-famous clientele in the Bay area – President Bill Clinton, Celine Dion, Snoop Dog, Idris Elba, Mike Rowe and the Dalai Lama, just to name a few – to America’s finest at the Home of Army Aviation.
“It’s a lot more meaningful to me – I do enjoy giving back to the Soldiers,” said Greene, who grew up in an Air Force family. “I think that, in itself, is really awesome, and they’re genuinely appreciative of their meals – it’s nice to get that kind of feedback from them (through Interactive Customer Evaluation comments and face-to-face contact).
“It really went unnoticed in the kitchen when I was working at the W and the Ritz-Carlton. You’re proud of what you do, but you don’t really get the direct feedback that you get here,” he added. “I really appreciate it and it’s nice to give to the Soldiers because they sacrifice so much.”
But there was a bit of a learning curve when it came to his culinary creations.
“It was a fun learning curve,” he said, adding that he’s classically trained in French cuisine. “There’s definitely a cuisine they like here.”
In the spirit of adapt and overcome, after a few items he initially prepared were “shot down,” he quickly modified his creations to please the palates his clientele.
“For instance, for the Aviation Ball (which was canceled recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic), I’ll be doing dolmas (a Greek dish featuring grape leaves stuffed with meat, olive oil and rice), but to put a southern twist on it, I’ll be making sausage dolmas and instead of grape leaves I’ll be wrapping them in collard greens,” Greene said. “So, it’s elevated, but it has the flavors that people want. I also have done a cheesy corn meal pancake with pickled green tomatoes on it and smoked ham. You can still elevate it, but keep it to where you can kind of please everybody.”
While nothing is finalized as of yet, Greene said he and the staff are looking at adding more themed-type events at The Landing, offering cooking classes for Soldiers and family members, and rolling out a new menu at 5-Star Catering.
“If you’re looking for something updated and new, something different, maybe something that you’re not used to, definitely give The Landing a try,” he said. “We’re making strides and improvements from how things used to be in the past. I really think we’re reinvigorating the culture here.”
Greene’s career plans for the future include pleasing the palates of the Fort Rucker community for quite some time.
“I’m definitely thinking about hanging here for a little bit,” he said. “Teaching has always been a passion of mine, so that’s something I want to kind of segue into at some point. Maybe even in the Army – I’m not sure what avenues are available for that. But I definitely want to stay with the Army for the time being – there are opportunities at resorts in Germany and Hawaii that could be kind of fun in the future.”
Looking back on what’s led him to this point in his career, Greene said he thinks that child in his grandmother’s kitchen would be thrilled with where following his dream has taken him.
But would he ever go back and give grandma some critiques on her cooking?
“No, never. She can do no wrong,” he said. “But I might put a little bit of salt on it when she’s not looking.”