SARASOTA, Fla. (July 10, 2017) – Michael Rantz was living at the Manatee Veterans Village when he heard about job training at USF Sarasota-Manatee’s Culinary Innovation Lab in Lakewood Ranch.
Collin Mapps was employed at a Goodwill store but wanted a higher-paying job to finance his dreams of college.
And Stephanie Smiggen, after years of bouncing from one job to the next, longed for a career to inspire her for years, maybe even decades.
The three are veterans, but that’s not the only thread that binds them. They’ve also struggled at times with housing and employment issues. Now they’re hoping to turn their lives around through a USFSM-supported program called Vets2Chefs.
Under the program, Rantz, Mapps, Smiggen and three other veterans are learning about life in a professional kitchen: organization and cleanliness; knife skills; the nuances of sautéing, braising and roasting; how to master soups, sauces and hot and cold appetizers, as a well as a host of other cuisines and skills.
The 12-week program doesn’t require out-of-pocket expenses from the veterans and comes with a job at a restaurant.
Founder Bryan Jacobs, a USFSM alum and one-time chef to the Busch family of Anheuser-Busch fame, sees one other important contribution by the program: “It gives them something to focus on to help them find their passion, purpose and craft.”
Finding inspiration to help
Jacobs, it turns out, knows a thing or two about veterans’ struggles. A Navy corpsman, he was attached to a forward Marine unit during the Gulf War. Following two tours in Iraq, he suffered PTSD and ended up alone, living in a car, drinking to forget his wartime experiences.
But in darker moments, the memories crept back, such as one afternoon on a bridge in Nasiriyah. With several wounded Marines pinned down on the bridge’s opposite end, Jacobs was forced to run across the bridge – the length of a football field – tend to the injured and bring them back one at a time.
Suppressing fire from U.S. forces helped, but otherwise he was exposed to enemy fire as he raced to bring the Marines across. He doesn’t remember how many he saved or how long the experience lasted.
“At that point adrenaline takes over and you’re like a machine,” he said.
Returning from Iraq, Jacobs ended up like a lot of veterans: jubilant at being home, knowing he was safe, but unsure about his next step. He jumped from job to job, none seeming to make an impact. At the same time, he dealt with memories of battle and loss. He turned to alcohol for relief, but that only made things worse. He ended up homeless.
Turning his life around
His grandfather’s advice to accept responsibility for his life motivated him to seek help and eventually, he found himself at a culinary school in Virginia, discovering his passion. He transitioned quickly through various kitchen roles, approaching each with military-like precision and focus, until he ended up at the renowned Gasparilla Inn in Boca Grande alongside Master Chef Peter Timmons, at the time one of only 74 certified master chefs nationwide.
From there, Jacobs expanded his education, enrolling in USFSM’s College of Hospitality & Tourism Leadership and working as a private chef. Finding a career to be passionate about saved his life, he says.
His younger brother, Kevin, also a veteran, struggled with PTSD, but he couldn’t find the resources to help with readjustment. He committed suicide in May 2014. The tragedy compelled Jacobs to launch Vets2Chefs.
“I just remember my grandfather saying, ‘You need to get your life together son,’ and that’s when I decided to ask for help,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. People need to understand that this program is not a hand out, but a hand up.”
Vets2Chefs debuted three years ago. Working with USF Sarasota-Manatee, Volunteers of America, Goodwill Manasota, Jewish Family and Children’s Service of the Suncoast and a half-dozen local restaurants, the program’s students are getting the chance to move past their mistakes and forward with new careers.
The program went on hiatus a year ago, in part due to a funding shortage. But this year, thanks to the support of a generous gift from the Stoneybrook Golf & Country Club Armed Forces Golf Tournament, the program resumed.
The annual tournament has supported local veterans’ organizations for 15 years and provided scholarships to vets seeking graduate degrees at USFSM for the past three years. Last year, tournament organizers agreed to support Vets2Chefs.
Structure, a calling is reawakened
Rantz said one of the program’s benefits is that it brings structure to veterans’ lives. For five days, and then once a week for 11 consecutive weeks, Jacobs and expert chefs from USFSM train the veterans. After a certain period, they’re introduced to kitchen jobs at local restaurants.
A van transports the students to class and Todd Hughes, veteran services administrator at USF Sarasota-Manatee, works to ensure they receive all of their veteran-related benefits. He also arranges services like free haircuts at SportClips in Bradenton so the students look their best for interviews.
Jacobs and other partners check in regularly to see how the students are coping and developing as chefs.
“Structure is exactly what I needed,” Rantz says.
Before the program, the Army veteran struggled with alcohol and hopped from one job to the next until he ended up homeless. Turning to the Manatee Veterans Village, a housing program operated by the Florida chapter of Volunteers of America, Rantz heard about Vets2Chefs.
It seemed like the perfect fit. He already possessed cooking skills, having worked in restaurants years ago, but he needed a fresh start along with a goal to work toward. He said he feels now as if his calling has been reawakened.
“In my head and in my heart I know now that I want to move forward,” he said.
Discovering passion, new job options
Mapps’ story is different. He came to the program lacking cooking skills. After the Air Force, where he served as a military policeman in England, he returned to Florida and lived with his parents.
Struggling to find work, he ended up at a Goodwill store. The job paid the bills, but it didn’t meet his career expectations. Long-term, he wanted a college degree and a career in the film industry, which meant a higher-paying job to finance his education.
Now, a month into the program, his job options are substantially improved. He still plans to attend college, but if the film career doesn’t materialize he says he can pursue a culinary career. Thanks to the program, he has a job as a line cook at Gecko’s Grill & Pub in Bradenton.
“I never imagined myself before as a cook, but I like it a lot,” he said. “The program has given me a different perspective and more organization in my life. Right now I’m going with the flow. I want to see where this takes me.”
A lifelong vocation is found
Smiggen, a Navy veteran, bounced from one job to the next and ended up living with her parents in Bradenton and then a brother in Texas. She heard about Vets2Chefs at Goodwill. She liked that it offered stability as well as something equally meaningful to her: “something I can feel passionate about, something that will help me push myself harder.”
Smiggen says she never imagined herself as a chef, but says the job feels right. She always had an affinity for cooking, even as a child, and hopes now to land a job as a sous chef at an upscale restaurant, perhaps helping aspiring cooks.
Long-term? She thinks she’d like to own a food truck or restaurant.
“The biggest thing for me is that I had to put my pride aside and admit that I needed help,” she said. “Once I did that I was able to move forward. Now I’m here, doing something I’m passionate about.”