AURORA, Colo. – For some, cooking is a means to an end, but for a select group of Colorado National Guardsmen, it’s a recipe of unqualified love.
“My joy is in watching others eat,” said Army Sgt. Joel Robinson as he began preparing the kitchen countertop at the Denver Fisher House.
The Fisher Houses provide a home-away-from-home for military families, allowing them to remain close to their loved ones during hospitalization for an illness, disease or injury.
And just like home, guests normally prepare their own meals – but not this one.
On the menu May 27: all-American barbecue, complete with pulled-pork sandwiches, grilled burgers, corn on the cob, pork ’n’ beans, and all the fixins.
Army Sgt. Anthony Patterson began cooking his signature pulled pork at his house the day before arriving here.
“Pork shoulder. Bone in. Just a slow simmer before it falls off the bone,” he said of his process that began 10 hours prior.
“We only get a chance to cook at drill twice a month,” said Army Capt. Mark Tommell while slicing a hearty, crimson tomato. “By doing this, we train more often and get the opportunity to volunteer.”
Tommell, the 193rd MP Battalion adjutant, has led multiple efforts to improve both the morale and the cuisine of the Soldiers in his charge. As the commander for Company E, 2-135th General Support Aviation Battalion in 2011, Tommell recruited Chef Ronald Lavallee from Johnson & Wales University in Denver to further develop his cooks’ culinary skills. Not only did the ongoing effort provide decadent and healthful cuisine for all the members of his battalion, it also lowered the cost of contract meals by nearly 70 percent.
In addition to cost savings, Tommell said he encourages creativity when designing meals to be served on drill weekend.
“It’s very common for units to order ‘heat ‘n’ serve’ food or cook bland Army recipes. It’s safe to say that no commander, food service officer, or Army cook would ever prepare an Army recipe at their house,” he said. “We’re continuing this training at Johnson & Wales, cooking at the Fisher House and preparing creative menus that focus on a variety of cooking methods.”
“I like ’em thick,” said Army 1st Lt. Mackenzie Merrick as she mashed 2 1/2 pounds of ground beef into dense patties for grilling.
Robinson prefers his burgers just a little thinner, and made his assigned portions so, adding green chilies to the raw meat for a savory effect on the grill.
Tommell said his intent is for everyone in the 193rd’s Food Service section to help prepare a meal at the Fisher house at least twice. With the initiative in full motion, he hopes to engage enough volunteers in the unit to keep the program going after he moves on to his next assignment.
“Capt. Tommell has a great passion for supporting our troops, along with rallying other Soldiers to help with this cause,” said Army Lt. Col. Isaac Martinez, the 193rd’s battalion commander. “I’m very proud I belong to a team of Colorado Guardsmen and veterans who want to give back to their own brethren.”
“Milk in the corn, makes it juicy and brings out the sweetness,” Robinson said as he added a cup of creamy liquid to the pot of vegetables steaming on the stove.
“… Then debone and shred, add some barbecue sauce,” Patterson said as he tore his main dish into bite-sized morsels for the dozen or so Fisher House guests. “Adding some of the original juices back in also helps keep the meat moist and retains its original flavor.”
For the completely self-funded initiative, the 193rd Soldiers also use their own time when it comes to preparing the guests’ priceless meals.
“One of the missions of the Colorado National Guard is to serve our community and help our neighbors when they’re in need, and by cooking dinner for our fellow veterans and their family members while they’re staying at the Fisher House, we’re doing just that,” Tommell said.
Fisher House resident Larry DeHaven said Patterson’s was the best pulled pork in town. “He'll make someone a good wife someday,” the guest joked as he filed through the buffet line for seconds.
Tommell has requested to conduct an advanced culinary class at the Denver Armory in the near future to be taught by Chef Lavallee. Pending funding approval, Tommell envisions conducting the class annually with cooks from across the Colorado National Guard.
Tommell and his team of volunteers cook meals monthly at the Aurora Fisher House. His team of volunteers will be back to prepare another meal there July 29.