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Reservist adds key ingredient to life's recipe

  • Published
  • By Gene H. Hughes
  • 908th Airlift Wing
Somehow or another, cooking has always been simmering in Senior Airman Keith Smith's life.

Before enlisting, he worked in the fast food industry, and his military occupation as a reservist with the 908th Force Support Squadron has food services as one of the five core fields. Even so, food wasn't always on the front burner.

In fact, the Montgomery native said he joined the military because he wanted to get away from food and try something else. He didn't know which direction his life would take after high school, but he did know one thing -- he needed a change.

Ironically, his path would lead him towards a very familiar road.

Today, Smith is not only serving his country, but thanks to his performance in the 2013 John L. Hennessey competition -- a joint effort between the Air Force and civilian food-industries to recognize the best in dining operations and personnel - he can make a career serving up culinary creations as a professional chef.

Smith, who describes himself as "the guy whose toast always falls with the butter side down," was recently awarded a trip to the Armed Forces Forum for Culinary Excellence, a week-long course at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif.

At the institute, Smith and his fellow students were taught by chef instructors whose resumes include five-star restaurants across the country, as well as numerous culinary honors.

Subjects taught during the course covered a wide range of activities, such as interactive tastings, panel discussions and tours. The students also received instruction on techniques used in the kitchen, including knife skills, selection of ingredients, international styles, healthy options and plating, as well as how to repair and recover recipes gone awry.

Smith said he most enjoyed the hands-on classes and lessons given by professional chefs, saying their skills were like nothing he had ever seen.

"Their passion for what they do was inspiring," he said. "I was honored to be able to get tips and advice from them and have them sample some of the dishes I prepared."

Like most young boys, Smith's early years were filled of dreams of being a fireman or an astronaut. His kitchen experiences mainly involved making quick and easy meals after school. But while visiting his uncle, a retired Army cook "who always put a lot of work and effort into his cooking," his began to look at food preparation differently.

"I was able to see all the different ideas and techniques that my uncle's family used," he said. "They worked quickly and neatly and there was always plenty of food. I became more interested in cooking through watching them."

His first real hands-on experiences came with his first job at 16, working at Stevi B's Pizza Buffet. With an often short-handed staff, Smith was needed in kitchen, even though his primary job was working the register. He said he enjoyed working on the cooking line, and eventually wanted to try cooking different things outside of work.

"I started getting involved in cooking at my house. I kept in mind some of the foods I watched my uncle and his family prepare and if I ever had a question or needed a recipe I could call them and get it."

Smith's uncle and his family in Colorado Springs, Colo., continue to be his biggest influences.

"My uncle is the one who convinced me to join the Air Force and I'm proud to be in the same career field he was. All of us had a lot of fun cooking together on holidays and from day to day and for that reason they are influential to me."

Smith also credits one of his younger cousins, a big fan of the Food Network, as having an impact. He said cooking shows were always on and eventually they caught his attention, especially those featuring celebrity chef Rachel Ray.

"The dishes she makes are simple, but often different than anything I might have thought of on my own."

When he's not attending drill weekends with the 908th, he's working in the deployed kitchen at the Force Combat Support Training site at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, preparing meals for students and putting his new skills to use.

"What I enjoy most about cooking is seeing peoples' reactions and hearing their comments about my dishes," he said. "That's where I feel I can learn the most. It's always rewarding when I see people are enjoying something I've made."

His current plans involve meeting all the requirements for promotion to staff sergeant and afterwards, he's looking forward to many more exciting years in the Air Force until retirement. However, he doesn't rule out having his own place someday, where he can do what he loves.

"My favorite dishes to make are Southern foods," he said. "I'm a country boy at heart and I like to make anything that takes me back to my roots. If I had my own restaurant you would definitely find those familiar comfort foods as choices on my menu."

For a guy whose toast always falls butter-side down, things are certainly looking sunny-side up.