FORT BENNING, GA – Have you noticed a change in the Fort Benning Martin Army Community Hospital Dining Facility? That’s because Francisco Elias took over as Head Chef about a month ago. So how does a Puerto Rican born, Culinary Institute of America trained, retired Army chef end up at BMACH? Well, when life gives you lemons, a chef makes lemonade. Really delicious lemonade.
Up until a couple of years ago, Elias was running the kitchen of a 4-star hotel in Puerto Rico. The owners then decided to send him to their sister property in Wisconsin to duplicate his success in passing the health inspection with flying colors. “They wanted me to implement whatever I did in Puerto Rico in one of their hotels in Wisconsin. I trained all the personnel, I trained the cooks, I trained my sous chef. I was promoted to food and beverage manager.
“When COVID hit, they didn’t need me anymore because I had already taught them everything I knew. They needed to cut their budget and they made me choose between me and another person I had brought from Puerto Rico.” Elias decided to leave because his colleague had brought his wife and bought a home in Milwaukee. He started applying for jobs and this door opened for him.
Elias had never been to the south. It was a big culture shock. But it’s definitely not the first time this adventurous chef has sought the unknown in search of new flavors and dishes. “After 9/11 when the towers fell, I decided to join the Army just to give back because of what happened. Korea was my first duty station. I did not know anything about Korea. I just wanted something different.
“Korea is one of the most beautiful cultures in the world. I was shocked to see ladies walking down the street holding hands, kids holding hands. You don’t see that kind of affection here in the states. I fell in love with the place.”
Turns out joining the Army and serving in Korea helped Elias realize his dream of studying at the renowned Culinary Institute of America. “I discovered that you get a scholarship and it made it possible for me to go to that university. The Army trained me to compete and we went to that school by coincidence. It was a big blessing.”
Elias also fell in love with spicy food. “The other day I was making kimchi omelet with sticky rice. Comfort food is anything that makes you feel warm inside. I never get homesick because food takes me where I want to be. That’s the benefit of being a chef,” confessed the man who travels with spices that remind him of his upbringing.
“Puerto Rican food is influenced by Spain, Africa and Taino Indians. With that mix, you get dishes that are similar to Spain like roasted pig. And then you have the unique dishes like morcilla which is blood sausage.” Elias explained morcilla originated from African slaves who had to make something delicious from the parts of animals most people threw away. Nowadays, offal and blood sausage are considered delicacies.
He plans to change up the menu here at BMACH to make dishes healthier. Elias knows it’ll be a challenge because fried dishes tend to be popular in the south. While morcilla might be a stretch, Elias definitely wants to incorporate more vegetables and possibly even fish. “Here they love soul food day. Jamaican day when we have oxtail stew, people come down and they take two or three servings home for their families.”
Elias’ schedule as Head Chef is unpredictable. Some days he is in at 4 a.m. before anyone else gets here, other days he starts at 8. The very first thing he does no matter the time is “greet all my people in the back. Thank them for coming because they are really the ones doing the hard work.”
Between office work and kitchen prep, his favorite part of the day is serving. “I love to see people’s faces when they really like something. I just like to serve things that make people happy like the oxtail.” His recipe for success must be working. “Our normal head count was about 275. I’m happy to say we went up 10% since I started. We are now in the 300’s, 320’s.”
When he is sick, Elias eats chicken soup. But not any chicken soup, his mother’s chicken soup with lots of cilantro and annatto (an orange-red dye from the pulp of a tropical fruit). When he feels like celebrating, Elias indulges in arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), accompanied by roasted pork and potato salad. The one thing BMACH’s Head Chef will not eat? Marshmallows. “When I was a kid, I was trying to make s’mores. I did not know it retained heat. It just burned my whole palate. Ever since, I don’t want anything to do with marshmallows.”