1st CivDiv: Richard Soto, Chef

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In this Military.com series, Combat-Ready Kitchen author Anastacia Marx de Salcedo talks to veterans about how they made the transition to their civilian careers. Check out her website here or follow her onFacebook or Twitter.  To share your own story, email her at anastaciamdes@gmail.com.

Richard Soto, US Army

Service: 2006-2014, Iraq, Continental US

Age: 27

Hometown: Holyoke, MA

What do you do now? I’m a chef at the University of Massachusetts Club, One Beacon Street, in Boston. And I’m starting a new business called MessSection to teach soldiers and youth about eating and cooking. You can follow me on Instagram.

How did you get into cooking? As the oldest of four boys, I grew up with a strong sense of family and cooking at home. My mom would make these dishes, and growing up in Puerto Rican household and community, you can imagine all these Creole flavors and things. That really got into my soul. One of my favorite recipes of hers is her beans. You start out with a sofrito, you fry the garlic really nice, you build it up, you caramelize the onions. There’s this whole method and step-by-step process that I got just by watching her.

What was your first job? My very first job ever was selling ice cream from a pushcart. After that, when I was 16, I worked at the Springfield Country Club. I started at the garnish station, making salads and dressings and washing dishes and pots. Every day for about three years, I’d get up at five o’clock in the morning, go to school, get out at 3 pm, go to work at the club, and come home around 11:30 pm. Then I decided to further my education and go to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Coming from a family that’s just above poverty level, I was like, “How the hell am I going to pay for this?” So I decided to join the Army.

Then you already had a career plan when you went into the Service. What did you do next? In 2006, I went to boot camp in Jackson, SC, and from there to Fort Lee, VA, to train in my MOS (military occupational specialty) which is a 92G, a cook in the Army. Most people think boot camp is tough, but being raised in a Latin household. I was like, man, you know, my mom yells at me all the time. That’s normal! The drill sergeant is yelling you at you because you didn’t do something right? Totally natural for me.

Two years later, in 2008, I was voluntold to deploy to Iraq. At the time, I was in my Culinary Institute of America externship process, working in New York City under a famous chef, Gabriel Kreuther. I was with the 304th Transportation Company out of Springfield, MA, and they called and told me we have redirected you to the 167th CSSB (Combat Sustainment Support Battalion) in Londonderry, NH, and you will be leaving to Iraq in the fall. I was kind of shocked. I knew that I wanted to serve my country, but with all the stress that I was already experiencing, working long hours in a high-intensity kitchen, I just started to sob.

What was your time in Iraq like? Did you use your cooking skills? My deployment was very long and very boring. I was based in Talill, Iraq. They wanted to put me in the kitchen, but I looked at my first sergeant and I said, “There’s no way in hell that I’m going in with these people to count heads.” I took any type of job—convoying, personal security for my sergeant major, delivering mail, radio transmitter operator—to avoid the mess hall. I just had different standards. I’d worked in New York City under a badass chef and with badass coworkers, who are now in the process of opening their own restaurants. I didn’t want to do a job that was mindless.

What was hardest about transitioning from active deployment? Everything was in a rush. I want to see this person, I want to see that person. Let’s celebrate. Let’s do this, let’s do that. If I could go back in time, I would have coached myself to take it slow and focus on what I really wanted to do.

You’re in this mindset of “You know, I cheated death, and I’m a warrior, and we made it, and fuck everything. You guys don’t know what I’ve been through.” I really just wanted to cry and hug someone and tell them how I was feeling. Instead you get into this realm of drinking to let these thoughts come out, not drinking to be social. I remember yelling at my grandmother for not writing me when I was in Iraq. And she was in tears. And I was like, “Wait, what am I doing, man? I’m hurting someone I really love.”

What did you do when you got back? When I came back from Iraq in 2009, I finished my culinary training at CIA, graduated, and I am now officially the first of my family to receive a college degree. 

And then you got a chef job? I also got my first real culinary job, as sous chef, through connections I made while I was doing my externship at the Modern in New York City with Gabriel Kreuther. I was good friends with Alex Schulte, a line cook, and he was working at this new restaurant, Market Street in Rhinebeck, NY, with Giovanni Scappin, an Italian chef I’d been fortunate enough to have classes with when I was at CIA. And, honestly? I got the job just by saying, “Hey I’ll be around at such-and-such time, and what’s going on?” And Scappin said, “You’ve got it, brother.” They knew that I worked hard and kept my head down.

I also switched over to the Army Reserve with the 167th CSSB, and it was interesting, because I was working 18-hour days all week in New York and then commuting on the weekends to Londonderry, NH, for training. When I got onto the Mass Pike, on I-90 East, I’d sleep in my car for a half hour at a gas station because I didn’t want to miss formation. And then on Saturday and Sunday, I’d pump out food for a hundred soldiers.

The other officers would send me guys to punish them. “You all fucked up today. Go see Sergeant Soto in the mess hall, he’s going to fucking put you to work.” What they didn’t know was I would receive all these privates who were doing bad and show them how to cook. “We’re going to stuff this pork loin with cranberries and chestnuts. We’re going to make a very rich demi-glace.” Afterwards, the other officers would ask, “Hey, how is Private Johnson doing?” And I’d be like, “He’s good. He’s cooperative.” It’s because of that experience that I’m starting my consulting business, MessSection.

How did you get your current job? The chef at UMass Amherst where I worked found out that I was moving to Boston. They were opening a new club on One Beacon Street, and he say, “Hey man, we’re opening this place, and we could really use your help. I’ve worked with you and you’re a hard worker. You want the job?” And I said, “Of course. Let’s make this happen.” So that’s what I’m doing now.

For more veteran job tips, job postings, and job fair listings, visit the Military.com Veteran Jobs Center.

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Anastacia Marx de Salcedo writes about all kinds of things, including food, science, business, and the military.