Celebrity Chef Highlights NCLS Commencement Event • US Air Force Academy

Celebrity chef highlights NCLS kick-off event

Celebrity chef Robert Irvine talks with U.S. Air Force Academy cadets during a cooking demonstration at the kickoff event of the 31st National Symposium on Character and Leadership at Mitchell Hall, Oct. 12, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Coakley)

By Randy Roughton
US Air Force Strategic Communications Academy

US AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colorado. – World-renowned chef Robert Irvine discussed cooking and culture with US Air Force Academy cadets during his visit on October 11-12.

Irvine’s appearance was a kickoff event for the Center for Character and Leadership Development’s 31st National Symposium on Character and Leadership Development, scheduled for February 22-23, 2024. The event included a cadet team cooking competition, food preparation demonstrations , culinary discussions, and a question-and-answer session with the celebrity chef.

Crossing cultural differences

Irvine emphasized the importance of culture and food as an opportunity to build conversations and relationships.

“We come from different backgrounds, but we don’t understand the diversity of our income levels, religion and all the things that we do, we do differently,” Irvine said. “Food allows us to start a conversation about such things. Food breaks all boundaries.”

Irvine is the host of the Food Network television series, “Restaurant: Impossible.” The former British Royal Navy chef is a prominent military advocate and owns a restaurant in the Pentagon. A portion of the proceeds from his work benefit the Robert Irvine Foundation, which helps first responders and military communities around the world. Irvine is on the road more than 150 days a year for his role supporting senior leadership in modernizing military dining facilities.

“We were honored to welcome and host celebrity chef Robert Irvine to the Academy to help kick off our 2024 National Symposium on Character and Leadership,” said Center for Character and Leadership Director Col. Kurt Wend. “Chef Irvine highlighted the value of food in building cultural connections and strengthening working relationships, which I think we can all relate to in our lives. It has undoubtedly provided a meaningful and memorable experience for our cadets.”

Cadet 3rd Class Kirsten Cannon prepares an African-inspired dish.Cadet 3rd Class Kirsten Cannon prepares an African-inspired dish of fried catfish and stuffed pepper with cross jambalaya and dirty rice at the 31st National Cadet Chef Symposium at Mitchell Hall, Oct. 11, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Cadet 1st Class Jared Cruz)

Cultural influences on cadet cuisine

Three cadet team leaders shared different cultural influences on their respective dishes before the cooking judging. Irvine has served as a cooking competition judge with the Academy’s Brigade Commander of Cadets. Gen. Gavin Marks and Wendt. Cadet 3rd Class Kirsten Cannon’s team won the competition with an African-inspired dish of fried catfish and stuffed pepper with jambalaya crossover and dirty rice. The tomato sauce, which Irvine called “one of the best he’s ever tasted,” highlighted the winning dish.

Cadet 3rd Class Anastasia Winters’ team made borscht, a traditional Eastern European beet soup, consisting of about 15 ingredients. The dish was from her Ukrainian mother’s recipe. Cadet 3rd Class Mychele Delauney’s team prepared an arroz con gandules dish in honor of a close friend who shared her Puerto Rican culture with her.

Inspirational stories

Irvine discussed the strengths and weaknesses of each dish and how they could be improved, but said his favorite part of the competition was the stories that inspired them.

“What I loved were the stories,” Irvine said. “Some of the food was great. Some of the food needed work, but the stories how [the cadet teams] I came up with the recipes and the dishes were very important to me because they show the diversity and inclusion of what we have in our power today.

Celebrity chef Robert Irvine prepares a dish during a cooking demonstration.Celebrity chef Robert Irvine prepares a dish during a cooking demonstration at the 31st National Symposium on Character and Leadership, kickoff event at Mitchell Hall, Oct. 12, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Coakley)

Cadet 1st Class Hilary Nolen, the cadet in charge of organizing the launch event, took advantage of her escort duties with Irvine to ask him questions about his travels and how he uses cooking to bridge cultural gaps.

“Chef Robert Irvine’s approach to cooking and his involvement in various culinary and philanthropic endeavors align with the theme of appreciating the human condition and cultures by promoting cultural appreciation, inclusivity, sustainability and community engagement,” said Nolen. “He uses food as a vehicle to demonstrate the richness and diversity of human conditions and cultures, promoting greater understanding and respect for these aspects of our world.”

The next day, Irvine articulated cooking’s ability to bridge cultures in three simple statements in his fireside chat with cadets.
“Food is culture. Food is hope. Food is variety,” he told them.

“Embrace the culture. Empower people.

The fall event kicks off the year’s NCLS theme, starting the conversation among cadets and preparing them to continue reflecting on it during the February symposium. The 2024 NCLS theme is “Assessing Human Conditions, Cultures, and Societies.”

Cadet 1st Class Hannah Wingo and Cadet 1st Class Kelly Yoon try celebrity chef Robert Irvine's dish during a cooking demonstration.Cadet 1st Class Hannah Wingo and Cadet 1st Class Kelly Yoon sample celebrity chef Robert Irvine’s dish during a cooking demonstration at the 31st National Symposium on Character and Leadership Kickoff event in the Richter Lounge on Oct. 12, 2023. ( USAF photo by Trevor Coakley )

See more photos from Chef Robert Irvine’s cooking demonstration and fireside chat video.

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