JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii. – Deep in South Texas – about 20 miles from the Mexico border – rests San Benito, a small town known for its unique museums and inviting food stalls. With a rich history and several different cultural influences, those who live in the town tend to share at least one common thing: a love for cooking.
For Airman 1st Class Pedro Gomez, 647th Force Support Squadron chef, growing up in San Benito introduced him to some of Texas’ best foods. From barbecue to Mexican food, Gomez grew up learning about cooking from his parents.
“When I was around 10 years old is when I first started to help my parents with cooking,” he said. “My dad said my sister and I needed to learn how to cook, so he would have us in the kitchen learning one week and the next week he would ‘quiz’ us on what we learned by having us do the cooking.”
Some things Gomez learned from his parents were different techniques or tricks to use while cooking, but others were intangibles he picked up through observation.
“My dad is my biggest influence when it comes to cooking because he always puts his heart and passion into his food,” Gomez said. “To this day, I always aim to have that same passion when I am in the kitchen, whether I’m cooking for myself or others.”
Gomez uses that passion in his work at the Hale Aina Dining Facility, located on the Hickam side of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. When cooking at the dining facility, chefs follow a recipe card for each meal they’re preparing, but that doesn’t hinder the passion put into each meal.
“We have recipe cards here that we follow, so I can only deviate from the recipe so much but I prepare the meal as near to perfection as I can,” he said. “Seeing some of these recipes made me want to experiment when I cook at home. When experimenting with different ingredients, some are bold, some tangy, some sour or sweet. When you start to mix some of those together, you can really make a nice melody of flavors.”
Once a month at the Hale Aina, a chef gets to stray from the recipe cards for a meal to prepare what they call their hometown meal. For one of the meal periods during the day, a chef is allowed to select, prepare and serve a meal of their own choosing, generally something that reminds them of their roots. To some, that may be an old recipe from a grandparent, while others may pick a delicacy from their region.
When Gomez was told he would be preparing a hometown meal, memories of mom and dad’s cooking came rushing in.
“I was elated to prepare food my parents would make for us and a lot of memories came back from my childhood,” Gomez said. “When I cooked my hometown meal, I talked to myself the same way my dad would talk to me when he was describing his process for cooking.”
“When I had my coworkers try my food it reminded me how my mom would finish preparing a dish and call out to my sister and me, ‘I need my taste testers!’”
Gomez prepared two dishes that were memorable to him: barbecue ribs – a staple of his dad – and his mom’s potato salad, which he says was one of his favorite foods growing up.
“When my mom would prepare her potato salad, I would be discreet and take a scoop when she wasn’t looking.
“My dad would do the grilling for us, so a lot of the grilling techniques and recipes I’ve learned came from watching him.”
Gomez’s hometown meal is an example of how the military’s diverse workforce enables individuals to bring and share their unique backgrounds and experiences with others.
“Since joining the Air Force, I’ve made friends from every corner of the world; learning about what makes each person unique and sharing that with each other is rewarding,” said Gomez. “My parents raised me to be open minded, saying, ‘It’s a big world out there. This little town we live in is not everything you will see and know.’
“We learn from each other and become more understanding of others,” Gomez concludes. “This understanding is what creates a cohesive force.”