I don't know what goes into the job of Army cook. I don't know the baseline for success, nor what failure would look like, aside from food poisoning. Observationally: Cooks seem to put 10 or so basic meals into rotation, changing up the sides on occasion, and incorporating whatever new item is sent from wherever it is the Defense Department finds food. (Boxes are marked with labels as "Pork, imitation, pre-formed" or some such.) In other words, no Army cook ever had an aneurysm from thinking too hard about his or her job.
But John seemed to come close. Watching him, he seemed like the kind of guy who wanted to do something big, something meaningful, but was worried about the consequences of even asking for permission. The start of his reign as midnight cook involved reheating lunches and dinners that weren't appetizing even when they were fresh. It was obvious this pained him, and next to the giant ashtray, he talked a lot about this chili he wanted to cook. It was a family recipe. He talked about the ingredients, and about scaling the recipe for a company-sized crowd and how great the response would be.
His enthusiasm seemed weird, and borderline delusional. When finally he worked up the courage to ask for permission, and later received it, all anyone heard about for what seemed like weeks was this chili he had planned. In retrospect, he was like a dot-com startup with a strange idea and clarity of purpose. ("...and the entire 'tweet,' as we call it, will be limited to 140-characters. It's going to change everything.") Only instead of Twitter, at the time it seemed like Webvan.
When the big night finally came, two things struck me: A lot of people showed up for midnight chow, and the chili was really, really good.
That night marked the beginning of a transformation for the battalion of soldiers. John didn't just create a meal; he created a social event, and having been proven correct once, he launched a one-man culinary quest to improve the lives of his fellow soldiers. He began serving nightly meals of remarkable sophistication using a very limited number of ingredients. (Afghanistan is notable for its lack of Whole Foods.) Midnight dinner services were planned weeks in advance. During the day, when he should otherwise have been asleep, he was constantly to be found supervising kitchen preparations, and every midnight, he attempted to outdo himself, and almost always succeeded. (He operated on an elaborate combination of stimulants and Ambien.) One night, while burning through his Korean cigarettes, he started eyeing the giant ashtray. Somewhere, somehow, he found suitable metal grating, and the disused fire-pit was soon resurrected as a big grill. Barbecues became a regular event.
Sleepy midnight chow became a teeming communion of comrades, and everyone from Special Forces operators to supply clerks, from privates to majors, met nightly to break bread. Even the First Sergeant seemed vaguely human for that singular midnight hour. Morale improved in ways immeasurable, and the pride John took in his work resulted in a renewed espirit de corps that lasted through the end of the deployment. He dragged a lot of people to the finish line.