Food in the mess hall at the U.S. Army base in Wurzburg, Germany, was bad. So bad that Thomas Bohne, who had never even cracked open a blue box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, took it upon himself to make something edible. He dropped 99 cents on a Thai cookbook, and turned out a decent pad Thai.
That was the start of his cooking career, which led to Bohne enrolling at Denver's Johnson and Wales on the G.I. Bill. While a student there, he worked at Panzano. And he also came up with a recipe that just won a national cooking contest.
Bohne submitted a recipe for Lobster, Shrimp with Vanilla Champagne Cream Sauce to a contest sponsored by winemaker Marchesi de Frescobaldi. His dish was so impressive it won him a dinner prepared by Donatella Zampoli, the Tuscan chef who now runs Marchesi de Frescobaldi's hospitality program. "I wanted to know how to get my name out there, and so I thought maybe some of these culinary contests," Bohne says. "This was actually the first contest I ever entered."
His prize meal was served Friday. Bohne flew to Denver for the event -- he recently moved to Philadelphia to work as an Army contractor. Before the meal, he spent the day prepping with Zampoli, working on such dishes as Italian-style Yorkshire pudding stuffed with asparagus, shrimp and colegio cheese; and pear and goat cheese stuffed raviolo with edible flowers.
Bohne was shocked to learn how simple it was to make pasta: just flour, eggs and a pinch of salt. "It was a tasting menu of an authentic Tuscan menu your grandma might cook," he says.
Bohne's eleven years in the Army took him to three continents: Asia, Australia and Europe. After Germany, he got shipped out to Japan, where he became an Iron Chef fanatic (the original Japanese version). He still remembers the ramen made with broth that was cooked overnight; if the chef didn't get it just right, the restaurant might be closed the next day.
He spent a year in Kosovo, where, in a nowhere town called Cachanic, a Serbian man served a dinner that would change his life. There was a tomato and cheese salad: The tomatoes were from the back yard behind the restaurant and the cheese came from the small herd of goats kept by the restaurant owner. That salad was paired with a mushroom soup, with mushrooms the restaurant owner had foraged himself.
"I've eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world, but this meal in the middle of Kosovo was mind-blowing," Bohne says. "It was probably the first time I ever had food that changed the way I thought about food. It was so simple. yet so good."
After a few more moves, in 2004 Bohne found himself in Iraq, where he was an IED specialist who hunted bomb-makers -- think The Hurt Locker. That was a low point for him, as well as for his culinary experiences. Bohne ate almost exclusively on base.
In 2006, Bohne headed to Australia. While there, he cooked alongside such Michelin-starred chefs as Alvin Leung Jr. of Hong Kong's Bo Innovation. That's what finally convinced him to get out of the Army, where he'd risen from a private to a staff sergeant, and become a chef. So he enrolled at Johnson and Wales for a year.
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While Bohne is now back in the defense business, he ultimately wants to be a restaurant owner. "I'm trying to make enough money as a defense contractor to go back into the restaurant business full-time," he explains.
He's leaving it to the market to decide what kind of restaurant he'll open, and where it will be. "I never narrowed down a style for myself," he says. "The concept of how to do food well is the same no matter what style it is: really good, fresh ingredients."