The fire inside: an Air Force chef's journey to culinary excellence

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jason J. Brown
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
As he handled a yellow bell pepper, Staff Sgt. Ghil Medina gazed inquisitively at its smooth, golden exterior.

"There's more to the ingredients than meets the eyes," the 633rd Force Support Squadron services journeyman said, motioning a hand over the pepper. "It's about unlocking the potential of your food, using every bit of it in as many ways as possible."

Medina knows a lot about unlocking potential.

The 23-year-old chef is preparing to take his talents to the national stage after winning several local and regional culinary arts awards and competitions. He will compete for the distinction of becoming the American Culinary Federation's National Student Chef of the Year at the 2011 ACF National Convention in Dallas, scheduled for July 22 through 26.

Medina's journey began in the Philippines, where he survived on bare essentials. Due to the high unemployment rate in his native country, his godparents raised him frugally while his father found work in the United States, sending financial support back as needed. Nonetheless, life in the archipelago nation was hard, and making ends meet was always a struggle.

"It's a different world. There are food stamps and welfare programs here," he said. "In the Philippines, if you don't have anything, you truly don't have anything. I know the definition of starvation."

At 18, Medina left the Philippines to join his father and stepmother in New York. He began canvassing local colleges looking for an education in the medical field because America was ripe with opportunities he would never have at home. However, education comes at a steep price; one the young immigrant simply could not afford.

"I was looking at college catalogs, talking to admissions people. When I saw the tuition, I said 'Oh, I can't pay for this,' he recalled. "Even the community colleges in New York are expensive. I tried applying for financial aid, but it wasn't enough."

In need of direction, he looked to his heritage. Inspired by Filipino family members' service in the U.S. Navy under recruiting agreements between the U.S. and the Philippines, Medina began visiting local service recruiters, hoping to find an enlisted medical job. He decided the Air Force could provide him the opportunities he needed to begin a career and the potential of pursuing a college education. However, his lack of U.S. citizenship disqualified him from obtaining a security clearance, and subsequently, the job he wanted.

"I knew I wanted to take care of people, and it was disappointing not to be able to get that job," he said. "But my second choice was to work in services, because I liked the idea of working in business, accommodating people."

With a specialty chosen, Medina enlisted in June 2007. After completing basic military training and technical school at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, he arrived at Langley AFB for his first assignment. From there, there was no turning back; he devoted himself completely to his craft.

He worked at a frenzied pace; balancing shifts, career development course workload and volunteering in the community. Within months of arriving at Langley, he deployed to Southwest Asia and served on the Langley Base Honor Guard when he returned. His efforts began to pay off as he earned his U.S. citizenship in 2008 and took home squadron Airman of the Quarter and two Junior Chef of the Quarter awards. He also aced his CDC final exam and earned a senior airman below-the-zone promotion.

In this bustling young career, he also found a new passion: the art of cooking.

"I saw Medina grow as a person, an Airman and a chef in his time at Langley, and watched the fire inside grow over time," said Chief Master Sgt. Raymond Magby, the 633rd FSS food service superintendent. "Once he got into the kitchen and got his hands wet, it stuck to him like glue."

After the standup of Joint Base Langley-Eustis in January 2010, the Army asked for support from Langley's 633rd FSS to participate alongside Soldiers from Fort Eustis in the 2010 Armed Forces Culinary Arts Competition at Fort Lee, Va. The squadron sent four Airmen, including Medina, to Fort Eustis for four months of extensive culinary arts training in November 2009 to prepare for the competition, traditionally dominated by Army chefs.

Medina earned an honorable mention after he filled a last-minute chef vacancy and hastily crafted a presentation, which drew praise from judges for his flexibility and creativity. Motivated by his successes, he was able to train alongside executive chefs and enlisted aides at the Army's Combined Sustainment Center of Excellence at Fort Lee. There he was able to glean insight from their experience in crafting elaborate courses and developing finely-tuned methods to employ in his cooking.

This world was far different from the daily grind at Langley's dining facilities. Gone were the mechanized, mass-production lunch-rush shifts; replaced by hours of pouring over the most subtle differences in taste and texture and the delicate symmetry of garnishes, proteins and vegetables, striving for the perfect balance of flavor, aesthetic and mouth feel.

"I put so many hours in the kitchen, it was exhausting. But I knew I had to work that hard to get where I wanted to go," he said. "I wanted my whole life to be a success and make a better life for myself, and this was how I was going to do it."

In March, Medina returned to Fort Lee for the 2011 Armed Forces Culinary Arts Competition. His laborious months in the sustainment center's well-appointed kitchens paid off. He won the 2011 Armed Forces Junior Chef of the Year award -- the first Airman to do so.

"His accomplishments are monumental," said Tony Skwirut, the 633rd FSS food service manager. "Joint basing gave him the opportunity to apply what he learned in our kitchens and beyond. He genuinely has a passion for being in the kitchen. You can teach someone to cook, but you can't teach passion."

The military food service community began to take notice. Medina competed at the 2011 ACF Western Regional competition in Scottsdale, Ariz., in May. He won again, this time earning the ACF Western Region Student Chef of the Year award. This win catapulted him into the national spotlight, boosting his confidence and preparing him for the next echelon of competition.

"Winning the [Western Regional] was hard enough. The chefs from the West are so talented," he said. "There are so many famous restaurants in Nevada and California. This area produces some of the best competition in the country."

In order to stand out from other competitors, Medina plans to draw inspiration from his modest Filipino roots. He plans to introduce ethnic elements into his creations, pulling on the rich tradition of "fiestas," the large townwide festivals ripe with elaborate cooking and celebration held annually in the Philippines.

"All our food is flavorful," he said. "Sometimes at restaurants you'll order meat that tastes bland, but it's expensive. It's not supposed to be like that. You want the flavor to pop in your mouth and taste great. "

With the national competition on the horizon, Medina recently returned to Fort Lee to train at the Sustainment Center of Excellence. The Army brought in Michael Matarazzo, the 2010 ACF National Chef of the Year, to help Medina develop better kitchen organization, time management and contemporary presentation skills to apply in Dallas.

"The goal at the competition is to give the judges a menu they don't think you can accomplish in the time you're given, and then go do it," Matarazzo said. "Ghil has a great work ethic and responds well to criticism. He has what it takes to succeed at the next level."

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Russell Campbell, the chief for the Advanced Food Service Training Division at Fort Lee, echoed Matarazzo's praises for Medina.

"He's like a sponge, always wanting to learn more and more from the chefs here. He takes everyone's advice and applies it in the kitchen," Campbell said. "He's an excellent representative for military food service, breaking down the stigma and misconceptions of military cooks and competing alongside the nation's finest student chefs in a civilian competition."

While he strives to win the national competition for personal satisfaction and accomplishment, Medina said he wants his efforts to shed light on the Air Force's talented corps of chefs and the potential they possess.

"It's my vision that the Air Force will be well represented in future culinary competitions. One day, hopefully we can form our own team and show the world what we've got," he said. "That's why I want to keep winning; to the thousands of Airmen and Soldiers working the line, providing sustenance for our warfighters, and prove that cooking in the [dining facility] isn't the end of the line."

Looking back on his whirlwind journey from Southeast Asia to the Southeastern United States, Medina said he can barely believe the degree of his accomplishments. The future holds infinite promise for him, including the prospect of a degree in hospitality management and the dream of one day owning his own restaurant. For now though, his focus remains on winning big in Dallas.

"I got where I am through dedication, passion and resiliency. I learned these things as a boy, and have practiced them my whole life," he said. "It's time for me to go out and show the country that I can be the best.

"Just like all the hidden elements in this pepper," he continued, smiling and tapping a finger against the brightly colored vegetable. "It's about knowing what it's capable of, reaching deep down and creating something great."