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New Orleans restaurateur John Besh, other veterans who are chefs say military served them well
'I would love to bring in more vets. They understand the mindset that it's not about them, it's about the mission.' -- Sean O'Mahony
left high school in 1986 and entered the Marines. Military service was part of his family's culture. Besh's father had been a fighter pilot.
"I wanted to be as good as he was," Besh said. "To be honest, I wanted to be better than him. He was in the Air Force, so I wanted to be in the Marines."
Besh started as a "mortar man." He became a forward observer, calling in coordinates for air strikes. His platoon was responsible for liberating the Kuwait International Airport in Desert Storm.
There was one thing that Besh, now one of New Orleans most celebrated chefs, managed to avoid in the Marines: mess duty.
"I would stand guard duty at midnight," he said, "just so I wouldn't have to spend any time in the kitchen."
It's not that Besh didn't want to cook. Ever since he met as a boy, he planned to be a chef. But he worried that time in a poorly run kitchen, and he was pretty sure that's what he would find in the mess hall, would teach him bad habits.
Years later, Besh operates some of New Orleans' most prominent restaurants, including August, Domenica and La Provence. He sees now, like other local vets who cook, bake bread or brew beer, that his military training created the foundation for his current success.
For Besh, combat gave him a perspective on every challenge he faced later in life.
"Seeing somebody that you know very well die puts everything in the kitchen into such perspective," he said. "The things that overwhelmed the chefs that I worked for, they were prima donnas. I thought, how sad. If they had been in combat, they would have handled that better."
Besh, though, had to adjust his leadership style to the civilian world.
"They're not all Marines," he said. "I had to ease up and tame some of my expectations."
, president and founder of , also came out of the military with leadership skills that he uses to run his brewery. Coco was a surface warfare officer in the Navy from 1996 to 2007.
"In the military, you get leadership training everyday," he said. "In the corporate world, it takes years and years to learn those skills. In the military, you learn quick or you die."
Coco also had to learn, though, to relax his standards for the world outside the Navy.
"I'm making beer," he said. "If I make a mistake, we might lose money. But three people aren't going to their deaths. It's a little more relaxed atmosphere."
Sean O'Mahony opened the bakery in 2012 after a post-military career as a financial consultant in Washington, D.C. His time in the Marines, he said, gave him confidence to take on the challenge of opening a new business.
"It's a mindset that it's all about the mission," he said. "It has to get done. Those are the expectations of everything I did throughout my career after the Marine Corps."
Because of his military experience, O'Mahony believes he puts higher demands on his employees. And he thinks his employees discover they can do more than they realized.
"I would love to bring in more vets. They understand the mindset that it's not about them, it's about the mission," O'Mahony said. "For someone who hasn't been in the service, it might come across as being abrupt."
His current lead baker, Oscar Williams, served in the National Guard.
Justin Ferguson, who oversees the menu at the Roosevelt Hotel's recently reopened , wasn't sure where his life was headed when he graduated from high school. After 9/11, he felt a call to serve his country, so he joined the Army.
"Being deployed was the best decision I made," he said. "I got off the plane in Kuwait, knew I was going to Iraq and realized that I had to grow up."
He didn't return to the United States for three years. Much of that time he was in Europe. It was there, when he was off duty and eating, that he realized that he wanted to be a chef.
When he left the Army in 2005 and returned to civilian life, the transition wasn't easy. Many of his friends from the military ended up reenlisting. The similarities between life in a kitchen and life in the Army, however, helped Ferguson focus on becoming a chef as he attended culinary school by day and worked at night.
"A kitchen is run with a rank structure very similar to the military," he said. "And it's always going. Here at the hotel it's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It never stops."
When Alex del Castillo left the Navy in 2001, he gravitated to the structure of the corporate world. At one point, however, he realized that he could strike out on his own. That's when he launched the food truck with his wife Maribeth.
"It was a big transformation for me to be outside a structure put there by someone else," he said. "It's scary but was also empowering and cathartic. I'm going to maybe not shave everyday and try something that is completely different."
His time in service did give him practical skills for operating a food truck. In the Navy, he was an engineer, making sure his ship kept moving.
"Running a truck and keeping that going," he said, "those are a lot of similar skills."
Veterans in New Orleans restaurant kitchens
Marine Corps: 1986-92
Final rank: Sergeant
Owns eight restaurants in New Orleans: Restaurant August, Luke, Borgne, Besh Steak, Domenica, La Provence as well as The American Sector and the Soda Shop at the National World War II Museum. See or visit for more information.
Final rank: Lieutenant
Founded . in 2008
Marine Corps: 1988-92
Final rank: Captain
Owns the bakery (8640 Oak St.)
Final rank: Sergeant
Chef de cuisine for (123 Baronne St.)
Alex del Castillo
Final rank: Lieutenant Commander
Operates with his wife Maribeth the food truck
Got a tip? Know some restaurant news? Email Todd A. Price at or call 504.826.3445. Follow him on Twitter () or Facebook ().
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