Local chef Arnel Esposo mastered the art of cooking while dodging bullets.
[IMGCAP(1)]Now the executive chef at Palette (1177 15th St. NW), Esposo first learned to cook during his tenure in the Army. Over the past 20 years, he
has transitioned from preparing meals for thousands of hungry soldiers to creating tasty dishes for hungry Washingtonians.
While the chef always had an interest in cooking — he used to help his mom shop at the local market as a kid — Esposo decided to enlist in the Army after graduating high school in 1989.
“There was an option to be an infantryman or a cook,— Esposo says. “I followed my grandfather’s footsteps. He was a cook in the Army.—
After completing basic training, Esposo was sent to eight weeks of cooking school in Fort Lee, Va., where he learned to prepare meals for thousands of people at a time. Each day he was charged with preparing bacon, eggs and grits for breakfast.
“Of course grits, I’ve always had fond memories of grits,— Esposo says with a smile.
Early on in his cooking career, the young soldier had a mishap with grits. Because he was born in the Philippines and grew up in Maryland, grits were not a staple in Esposo’s diet.
“The first time I made grits, they were so lumpy,— he says, adding that after tasting the offending item, his commanding officer screamed at him to drop and do 20 push-ups in the middle of the kitchen. Esposo explained that grits were not a typical breakfast-time treat in Maryland and that he had never made them before.
“He said, OK, from now on for the next 30 days, you’ll do grits every morning.’ So I perfected making grits when I was 18 years old,— Esposo says with a giggle.
After his release from the Army, Esposo used the GI bill to attend the Baltimore International Culinary College. This training led to an apprenticeship at Kilkea Castle in Ireland, where he mastered fine cuisine. After two years across the Atlantic, Esposo returned to D.C. and did stints cooking at the Citronelle and the now-closed Red Sage before arriving at Palette six years ago.
“I enjoy being in D.C.,— Esposo says. “I think we’re up there as far as cooking goes.—
[IMGCAP(2)]While restaurant cooking can be stressful, Esposo says there is nothing quite like the harrowing experience of cooking for thousands of troops in the middle of a war zone.
“It’s horrible. I mean it’s a 24-hour job, seven days a week,— he says of his experience cooking in the Middle East during Operation Desert Shield. “At 2 o’clock in the morning you’re waking up to boil water and you’re firing up the stove to warm it up and cook for thousands of troops.—
Desert Shield wasn’t the chef’s only brush with war. In 2007, while he was serving in the National Guard, Esposo was called out of the kitchen and shipped to Iraq. While he was employed as a professional chef in Washington, Esposo became an infantryman.
“Believe me, I wasn’t ready,— he says. “I wish I’d stayed in the kitchen.—
When Esposo returned from serving a year in Iraq, his job at Palette was waiting for him. In fact, his colleagues at the restaurant went so far as to send him care packages while he was overseas. While cooking for the troops is a hard task, Esposo says cooking in a restaurant is more challenging.
“As far as cooking for a daily event for thousands, you can really see what you can do, but a la carte is more challenging,— he says. “You have a lot of people that come in, and you don’t know what they want.—
The menu at Palette is a mixture of Pan Asian and American cuisine, with a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Esposo buys locally grown foods and cheeses whenever possible.
“We just want to keep it unique,— he says. “We’re focusing on being unique, local and honest with the food we have.—
Several months after returning to Palette from Iraq, Esposo was once again called out of the kitchen — this time to keep order during President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Esposo was only given 24 hours notice.
“I was really kind of ticked off about that,— he says. “It was very, very cold. I was wishing I was in the kitchen that day.—
Despite the frigid temperatures, Esposo was still able to revel in the moment and enjoy watching the historic event unfold before his eyes. He stood guard at the inaugural opening concert held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On Inauguration Day, the chef stood guard along the parade route.
“I was lucky because when the president got out of the limo, he was right behind me,— Esposo says. “I turned around. I had to look like everyone else does.—
Now, at the age of 41, Esposo is faced with a decision. Does he re-enlist in the National Guard or does he let his contract expire and focus full time on cooking and spending time with his wife and two young sons?
“I don’t even know if I want to give it up,— he says. “I feel that I owe my career to the military. I’m a third-generation [soldier], and I feel like I’m obligated to fulfill my time and duty.—
Esposo is still enlisted in the National Guard, and for now he is directing his focus on his cooking and whatever doors it may open.
“This career can take you pretty much anywhere,— he says.