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December 19, 2013

Nemitz: Maine cook serves with pride in Afghan hills

Watch Jeffrey Pelletier prepare meals for Bravo Company.

By Bill Nemitz

COMBAT OUTPOST DAND WA PATAN, Afghanistan - The half-cooked burgers, at least two dozen of them, pop-pop-popped on the hot electric grill.

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Spc. Jeffrey Pelletier of Waterville, who prepares up to 500 meals a day for Bravo Company, talks with fellow soldiers while cooking.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Spc. Jeffrey Pelletier of Waterville, foreground, and Pfc. Kevin Beal of Machias work on a faulty generator that gave out halfway through dinner preparations Wednesday for Maine Army National Guard troops at Combat Outpost Dand Wa Patan in Afghanistan. Moments later, they fired up the barbecue grill.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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The onions and peppers sizzled somewhere between al dente and saute.

The clock indicated 15 minutes, and counting, to chow time.

Spatula in hand (flip, flip, flip, flip scrape, scrape flip, flip, flip, scrape flip, flip, flatten and scrape ), Spc. Jeffrey Pelletier of Waterville moved like a soldier on a high-priority mission inside his hot, cramped Army kitchen.

Then it happened.

The massive generator out back coughed, sputtered and, just like that, died.

In this place where the roar of generators means all is well, the sudden silence was deafening.

"Uh-oh," Pelletier said, spatula suspended in midair. "That's not good."

Without missing a beat, the baby-faced cook rushed outside, flipped open the lid of a makeshift, 55-gallon-drum outdoor grill and quickly ignited a roaring blaze from scrap lumber.

"We'll barbecue the rest of them," he said, cool as a cucumber.

You want pressure in a combat zone?

Try being the only cook for 150 young, strapping, always ravenous soldiers from the Maine Army National Guard's Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry.

"It's a pretty daunting task," Pelletier said during a rare quiet moment this week. "Ideally, you should have one cook for 50 soldiers. So there should be at least probably two or three cooks here."

Instead, there's Pelletier. And there's Pfc. Kevin Beal of Machias, who helps out with the serving and the stocking while the boss focuses on the one thing that truly matters to any GI who's toughing it out here on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border: his stomach.

Pelletier is 27. A decade or so ago, he was best known as the kid from Palermo who knew his way around engines and raced stock cars at tracks in Wiscasset and Unity.

Then, after he graduated from Erskine Academy in South China in 2002, life came knocking.

Pelletier broke up with his girlfriend, joined the Army and, just for the heck of it, decided to try cooking.

Smart move.

After finishing his advanced individual training as a food service specialist and, on the military's dime, taking an intensive three-week course at the Culinary Institute of America, Pelletier soon came to realize that he was more than just interested in cooking. He was pretty darned good at it.

So good that by 2004, at age 20, he was named the National Military Pastry Chef of the Year -- besting every other cook in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines when it came to all things crusty-yet-flaky.

Posted in Korea at the time, Pelletier soon found himself transferred straight to the top -- the secretary of the Army's dining facility at the Pentagon.

There, over the next three years, he cooked for generals, senators and congressmen.

He cooked for visiting military brass from the Mediterranean and all over the Middle East.

He even cooked for celebrities like former football star Terry Bradshaw, baseball legend Dave Winfield and World Wrestling Federation idol "Mankind" -- each of whom posed for pictures with Pelletier at the annual Hall of Heroes banquet for wounded veterans in Washington, D.C.

So how does a young guy, well versed in the intricacies of truffles and creme brulee, end up at a hardscrabble combat outpost churning out cheeseburgers, bacon and eggs and chicken tenders?

For starters, Pelletier finished his four-year active-duty hitch in 2007 and immediately joined the Maine Guard.

But there was more to it. As exciting as his active tour of duty had been, it left him with a nagging feeling that he'd never actually been, well, a real soldier.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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The dinner menu at Combat Outpost Dand Wa Patan, posted by Spc. Jeffrey Pelletier of Waterville, has a distinctly Maine flavor. “There is no day off,” the chef says. “I’m the only one here.”

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist


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