I’m Greg McIntyre with a special chef’s version of lunch with a veteran today. Martin Mongiello is executive director of the United States Presidential Service Center and owner of The Inn of the Patriots. He is a 30 Year retired military vet, chef to Presidents, stars and a lucky few under the polar ice cap in a submarine and others.
So, how does a young guy say to himself, I want to do this and somehow the military is going to be a part of it?
MM: I was seventeen, I was trying to do something with my life. I did not want to wait and waste away and I was smart enough to get out of town. That was the first time I flew on an airship. We landed in Texas so I put a check mark for Texas, then I transferred and landed in San Diego for boot camp.
I was just putting one foot in front of the other. I swore up and down there was no way I would sign up for anything beyond four years. It was scary to me, but I ended up retiring in, that’s how hilarious it is. When you’re younger you don’t look back like we do now, and I think that is one of the biggest secrets of life. Listen to the old people because they are trying to tell you something, it’s always coming through in their speech, it’s a message.
GM: You feel like a lot of people are in a hurry, for instance, my seventeen year old is always in such a hurry to do everything perfectly, and get everything done and get into college early. I think we are in too much of a hurry. Learn a trade, a skill, a job, sure, but travel the world and have a great time.
MM: I was afraid to travel the world. For the first ten years, they offer you things like, go live in Japan, all expenses paid, or we’ll fly you and your household goods and you can live in Europe, and I was like, there is no way I’m leaving where I’m from and my family. How silly was that? It took ten years to get pass that. I lived out on Point Loma. That’s the nice part of San Diego, that’s some of the highest priced real estate.
GM: When people think about a military base, they don’t understand. The military bases I was on, the Naval air station North Island, the golf course there looks like something out of a pro golf tournament. You’ve got beautiful weather, the ocean, Point Loma has all the yachts.
MM: People have a lot of their weddings out there if they’re in the military.
GM: I remember the gym I was working out at on North Island, it was several hangars strung together. They would open the hangar doors, there was six basketball courts in there, weights or whatever you wanted. I always had time to do it during my day. I was looking out at several aircraft carriers parked just across the road and the city of San Diego in the back ground. It was a view and that was your day.
MM: I was surface warfare qualified and submarine warfare qualified and I had a weird opportunity where I never even knew I was interviewed by White House military office to do a job. Where I was going, Camp David, was a Seabee run command, so I was a Seabee for a couple of years without having any Seabee training.
GM: So, Seabees are people who put up construction.
MM: Airstrips and such. Camp David was always in need of endless construction. We built a few cabins while I was there and just kept up the facility. It is on top of a mountain after all.
GM: We build, we fight.
MM: Yeah. Who knew I was going to be a Seabee, I never planned on that.
GM: But food is your life, and centers around it, and that is something that people who aren’t involved in the military, especially the Navy, may not know. From second hand knowledge, my suspicions are the Navy has some of the best food. I can tell you, even going out on aircraft carriers the cooks are serious about their job. It’s one of the best run departments on the ship.
MM: Any number of entrees.
GM: They will fry up an omelet with anything you want in it, and you learn to order quick because they are servicing so many people. Hash, bacon, sausage whatever.
MM: Food has certainly gotten better in the military.
GM: I heard submarines have some of the best food.
MM: They do, we get more money so it makes it easier per day. You can get fifty-five or so more per person per day, so instead of feeding a human with seven dollars and fourteen cents, you’ve got seven dollars and seventy cents. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot to people but that is what food costs the US Government. People might say, how can you feed a person for seven dollars fourteen cents a day? When I first went in the Navy in eighty three right out of high school, we had a lot of junk food. We had third world butter and stuff that was clearly marked for donation by US Aid program. That was what we fed sailors and marines, some of the worst products, and contributed medically to terrific damage cardiovascularly. In the beginning when I first came in we used animal lard and the Navy was very proud we were switching to Crisco? We would only be ingesting Crisco from now on. What we know now is eating Crisco is also not a good thing. Crisco is kind of horrific. You get smarter and you change what you’re doing so the food has come a long way.
About that ten year mark in the Navy, when I was recruited by the White House military office, just as I started doing a lot more than managing hotels, I started managing private homes. The biggest homes you could manage would be the Presidents private home.
GM: How do you get to that point? You went in the military, you were a Seabee, how did you start cooking? Did you start cooking in the military?
MM: Yes. I was cooking in my house from around the age of four. I always loved cooking, so when I went into the military that was a huge aspiration. To pay for my private all boys catholic high school, which was very expensive, I worked in Italian restaurants and for iHop and worked these all summer long so I could save enough. In my senior year I worked full time at iHop which was hilarious. Twenty one years later when I was retiring, the CEO of iHop sent me an apron, hat and a letter to my retirement ceremony. It was hilarious to see it come full circle. That’s how I got cooking, and that lead me to hotel management school in the Navy.
GM: Why would the Navy have hotel management school?
MM: Because of barracks, housing millions of sailors on land per year. As soon as I graduated from that, I did four years at sea which is how the Navy goes, when you’ve done that you get to come on land. My first duty station on land was a huge resort in Pensacola Florida, the cradle of Naval aviation, that’s where I had a fifteen hundred room hotel that I was helping to manage. I was one of the managers and on duty general manager of the entire resort. That was a massive responsibility for a twenty or something year old. I was like twenty two, and that’s how the military works.
GM: They give you massive responsibilities at a young age.
MM: The military philosophy is, push down the most responsibility as humanly possible onto the eighteen years old back, neck and face. If it’s not something that’s unsafe, it will be pushed down onto them. Then if you want to become a chief, I was acquainted with the philosophy of, here’s how we will know if you are a good chief or not. When you go on thirty day vacation, called leave in the military, if everything runs like a clock and no-one can tell you’re gone for a month, and we don’t need to call to ask one single thing, or send an email or text, you have done your job as Chief Petty Officer. If stuff goes out of control or haywire, then you’ve not done your job.
GM: That’s because you are doing everything as the chief to keep everything running? Instead of delegating it to other people.
MM: That’s the problem, the military teaches that you will not hide any information, or skills, you will immediately remove all knowledge you bring to the workforce and give it to the eighteen year old, which is different than out in town. People hide information for job security, they won’t teach everything to some snot nose kid.
GM: I had to learn this to be a good manager. A manager does not do all the jobs. In fact, the game becomes, how quickly can I get this hot potato off my plate into someone else’s hand to accomplish that. I do not want to be the bottleneck. I want to oversee the process and make sure everything works. That’s hard as an attorney, someone who is so used to doing everything, having to find great people to hand those things off to. You make a great point, the military does not care that you are eighteen, they fully expect you to accept the training and responsibility and step up and get it done. They will show you how it’s done and if you do it wrong they will let you know.
Why do you think the private sector doesn’t operate the same way? I think there is some of what you say in the private sector but I think there is too much coddling. Kids stay home too long, then they go to college and they coddle them, then they go to more college and the same. Why don’t we put more responsibility and more faith in young people like the military does?
MM: The mass proliferation of the computer was not where we needed it, not like today. Today a child can attend college with just a laptop while living in Australia working at the American Embassy on a two year program, but still be in college in the US. You could send a kid to Zaire with the Presbyterian church on a program but the kid is in college doing his or her degree.
GM: I think we need to put more responsibility and faith in our kids, I suppose that’s what I’m getting at. The military does put that faith in you and expects you to step up. You’re tested so they know what your aptitude is and puts you in a job that coincides with that. Do you think that was a good thing to put that responsibility on your back, neck and face to start out with?
MM: I didn’t appreciate it then like I do now. I worked one hundred and twenty six hours per week because when you’re at sea, you’re either working or training, or doing your watch.
GM: We were on twelve hour shifts unless there was an emergency. When I first started, I worked on Hawkeye radar systems and I’d go out with a senior tech who knew the system like the back of his hand. We supported that airwing. That was four planes. Each was kept up twelve hours then switched out, so we kept the radar part of the aircraft up and running. That was our job. If we didn’t have it running, essentially the whole carrier group was blind. That was on the heads of some young guys. That kind of responsibility is put on you.
MM: I liked what the secretary of the Navy said with this promotion for the first female four star Admiral in United States history, he said, this is direct proof how far this country has come. Not only is she a lady but she is a black lady, and he stated this shows how far she has taken the United States because she wasn’t a token black lady, she worked her buns off for that position.
GM: The military is very diverse. Let’s get back to this, how did you learn to cook? I know you said you cooked before the military but were you a chef in the military as well?
GM: At what point when you were managing these hotels did you become a full-time chef in the military?
MM: As soon as I graduated basic cook school in San Diego, the guys came through and said they were recruiting for a new submarine. This was in the beginning at eighteen.
Boot camp, then cook school, then I flew to nuclear submarine school in Groton, Connecticut. I graduated that and went to my first boat the USS Sunfish and I was living in Charleston for four years. So, you’re under water, there is nothing to do, it’s seven days a week, eighteen hours a day, just cooking, it’s easy to rack up one hundred and twenty six hours a week. That’s really where I learned how to cook the best. In fact, Hillary Clinton used to ask me in her kitchen, where did you learn to cook all this gourmet food, and I would tell her, self-taught in a sewer pipe first lady. She would say, in a what? Inside a sewer pipe with one hundred and fourteen other men who generally used F and MF every third word, that’s where the learning center was. I never went to culinary school. That was my big dream when I retired was to go to college and I just graduated from Charlotte in 2010 summa cum laude at the arts institute with a bachelor’s degree. I used the post 911 G.I bill. I was the first duel enrolled student for the art institute in history under the post 911 G.I bill.
GM: What’s different about the post 911 G.I Bill?
MM: In the sixties and seventies they had a thing called VEAP, Veterans Education Assistance Program, and I was on VEAP. It was kind of like, you put in a dollar we’ll give you two. So, you could rack up three times the amounts.
GM: With classes while in the military I think I had to pay for a third.
MM: I did to while I was in but I didn’t have enough to get a degree. MGIB would pay ten times what you invested. The new post 911 G.I Bill has some requirements, and it’s based on percentages. I was one hundred percent qualified because I exceeded the three years in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. And for the first time it said you should be able to attend some courses online. The biggest thing is the payment for a certain amount of money for a housing allowance, so someone can go to college and still pay their rent. That has never been granted before.
GM: You talked very casually about talking to Hillary Clinton in her kitchen, can you tell me more about being a chef to Presidents. How does that happen?
MM: Only the Navy works in the White House staff mess, and only the Navy runs two restaurants underneath the Oval Office. Reservations are booked thirty to ninety days in advance at every table. The Navy also runs a take-out counter, sometimes up to a thousand gourmet lunches a day for staffers. Obama had four hundred and seventy three people on his staff, those people are all hungry. The worst thing those staffers could do would be to go out for lunch because you would have to go through security to get to your car which is super far away.
GM: So, you were recruited to work in the White House?
MM: Yes, I did state dinners and special events in the White House. I never knew the Navy did all the cooking. No other service is allowed. My Captain was explaining this to me one day. He said, we also run the Camp David resort. With you having graduated first in your class for law enforcement academy and doing all these special schools with the Marine Corp and Anti-Terrorism, and being a cook and having graduated from hotel management school, we think you’re the perfect candidate for Secretary of the Navy to nominate you for Presidential duty. I was like, alright, sir, yes sir. It was weird being invited into his state room. I had never been in that man’s state room other than to clean the baseboard and dust.
GM: But they had a job to fill and somehow because of all that training you came up.
MM: It was God’s plan.
GM: I say that, at the time I could not see why when I was doing this and that but looking back, those pieces of the puzzle fit. They make sense and make me who I am today. It sounds like all those different trainings made you the perfect candidate.
MM: You work with veterans and the law, so, as a veteran who would you rather go to for advice? The person who graduated from boot camp right? What it took for my wife Stormy just to graduate boot camp and to make it to the fleet is not something to take lightly.
GM: I say boot camp or any other school in the military or in civilian life is not meant to weed people out, it’s meant to get you through if you play ball. Do what is asked, have a decent attitude and you’ll be fine.
So, you go to the White House and then you get sent to Camp David?
MM: I was groomed and picked. I knew I was going to Camp David to work from the beginning. It took about a year and a half, so it was under H.W Bush when I was initially interviewed and selected. There were fifty six chefs that went through the interview that day and they picked three. About a year and a half later it was down to two of us who made it. This was where the United States will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to clear you and investigate both sides of your family. You can get bumped by close family members, it’s not just about you anymore.
GM: That makes sense, you might end up cooking and serving food to the President of the United States, that’s a big deal. That’s one of the most important jobs you could have.
MM: And people there know who you are and where you are.
GM: I’m sure they watch you.
MM: You must know what to do. If they test you to take a bribe in the men’s room at Lowes for eighty thousand dollars in tens to see if you will call it in on the phone within an hour and report it like you were taught by the CIA, and they will tell you, oh yeah, we were just testing you 14592. Don’t worry we will meet you and get the money, just make sure you don’t finger any of the five thousand with the purple band or take anything. But it’s the people who don’t call it in.
We had a thing at Camp David called the Sequoia Express, it was a blacked out car which would drive up and the agents would get out and everyone would start to scurry. They would go over with a magistrates order, and you could see it had a gold embossed seal, and they would say they were here to pick somebody up, and it would be like a sailor or a marine, and it’s like, you’ve got to be kidding me, that guys been in the military for twenty seven years, what did he do? You might hear weeks later that they went down to his house that night, cleared his children out of school, trucks down there, they emptied the whole house out, his wife and everything gone by the morning. They had a social services lady in there to interact for him to say goodbye to the children for an hour.
GM: So, quick question, how many Presidents did you serve under?
MM: I served four Presidents. I was hired under H.W Bush, Bill and Hilary Clinton, they did not allow a lot of people in the house ever. There were other Presidents who would come and visit the White House from different countries and you’ve got to cook for them and take care of them, and famous stars and CEO’s would sleep over at the White House at night. One night a guy that I really liked Steve Jobs was there for dinner and the White House Usher told me, oh he’s staying overnight too. That’s unbelievable man, cooking for Steve Jobs.
GM: So you met Steve Jobs?
MM: I didn’t meet him or shake his hand because you don’t bother them, that’s not your place.
GM: You’re not there to be seen.
MM: But it was still cool to be cooking for Steve Jobs and then he was hanging out staying the night. I only had one question; on the paper why does it say PIXAR, what is that? Oh, you didn’t hear, you didn’t know he was thrown out of Apple. I’m like, What, Steve Jobs, and he said, you don’t need to keep saying the man’s name. They’ll probably make a movie about what happened in ten or twenty years. Did you watch the movie?
GM: Oh sure.
MM: Just guests like that, it was unbelievable. From there I went to Japan and cooked for Prime Minister Hashimoto, I went into the deserts to cook for King Abdullah the second and his wife Queen Ranja. I worked at NATO cooking for the United States and United States Embassy.
GM: And now you employ those talents at The Inn of the Patriots in Grover, North Carolina which is right off eighty five on exit 2 (I 85, exit 2). You are also the owner of the United States Presidential Service Center in Grover North Carolina.
MM: Our bed and breakfast is called The Inn of the Patriots. There is a museum inside and a Presidential center. We have two gift shops there, the culinary school and we do consulting for resorts and private homes.
GM: Thank you for coming here, sharing and talking with me about your incredible service, it’s a real honor.
If you have any questions about Senior or Veteran’s Benefits, please contact me at 704–751–8031.
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