Tuesday, March 12, 2013


If Defense US Secretary Chuck Hagel develops a fondness for chicken relleno or pinakbet blame it on one very talented Filipino-American chef.

Staff Sgt. Ghil Medina has been with the US Air Force for the past six years. He is officially part of the 633rd Force Support Squadron working out of Langley Air Base in Virginia. But he is also one of the cooks who feed the Defense Secretary and other Pentagon brass and is sort of a celebrity within the elite clique of culinary warriors.

He’s already collected a silver medal in the K1 “professional” category of the 38th Military Culinary Arts Competition at Fort Lee, Va. which ends on Friday (March 15). Medina won on a dish that he says was inspired by his Filipino roots – chicken relleno, mixed vegetables and garlic rice with adobo sauce.

Hagel is probably no stranger to Asian dishes. He served and was wounded twice in Vietnam in 1967-68 as a squad leader with the 9th Infantry Division. But unlike that other Vietnam War vet in the Obama Cabinet (State Secretary John Kerry) I couldn’t find any record that Hagel stopped at either Subic or Clark where the seriously wounded were usually brought from Vietnam to recuperate.

But the 25-year-old Medina assures he’ll be well fed in the Pentagon.  The Secretary, he revealed, “eats simple and on the healthy side”.

Medina’s life story is like that of many other immigrants to the US. He survived on “bare essentials”, living with his godparents until his father and stepmother could bring him to New York when he was 18 years old.

“It’s a different world,” he told a US military journal years back. “In the Philippines, if you don’t have anything, you truly don’t have anything. I know the definition of starvation.”

He joined the USAF to get a college education. His family couldn’t afford the tuition and financial aid was out of reach, he explained. He enlisted in 2007 and rose steadily through the ranks by topping one exam after another and reaping awards. He also started winning cooking competitions in the military.

"I put so many hours in the kitchen, it was exhausting. But I knew I had to work that hard to get where I wanted to go," Medina declared. "I wanted my whole life to be a success and make a better life for myself, and this was how I was going to do it."

He is competing with the “best of the best” in the US Armed Forces. For those who’ve been in Clark and Subic when the Americans still ran the bases, it’s obvious they fed their soldiers well.  At Fort Lee, they had well-stocked containerized kitchens that were probably the closest thing they could come up with to simulate field conditions. 

"What they can expect here is enhanced professionalism, enhanced culinary skills, more developed techniques in the arts of food preparation and food sanitation, and the credentials that will allow them to be recognized in the private industry," explained Lt. Col. Luis A. Rodriguez, director of the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence at Fort Lee in a US Army website.

Medina said he doesn’t mind going back to Lackland Air Base in San Antonio, Texas where he started, and cook for other Airmen. “I am passionate about cooking because I love to make people happy. That's the main thing,” he stressed.

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