Pairing vets with chefs to teach culinary skills

Stonington — RD86 Space and Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services, or V.E.T.S., on Monday night kicked off the first in a series of events where veterans are paired with local chefs to make community meals.

Organizers are piloting the concept, called the Cowboy Kitchen, over the summer with the goal of turning it into a full-fledged program to teach culinary skills to vets.

"We don't try to teach them how to run a restaurant. We get them engaged at their own pace and skill and give a lot of support," said Robert Ramsay, co-founder of RD86, a restaurant in New London that regularly hosts events.

The meals are being hosted at the nearly 40-acre farm property in Stonington, where V.E.T.S. puts on its equine-assisted program for vets with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges at no cost. Tickets for Monday's event were $35 with proceeds going to support V.E.T.S.

"I'll admit, most of my spare money goes to eating out," said Victoria Forrer, 38, of Niantic, a Navy veteran, taking a break from cutting vegetables for pico de gallo, a salsa that usually includes chopped tomato, onion, cilantro and lime juice.

Forrer, who went through the V.E.T.S. program and is furthering her training at the farm, said she felt a sense of purpose learning, in a group setting, how to "take care of myself and feed myself."

Craig McCalister, founder of V.E.T.S., said the idea is to keep the events casual, "make them a fun experience that people can get behind and look forward to." The organization has both an agricultural and educational component, which ties in nicely with what the culinary events are trying to achieve, McCalister said.

Ramsay envisions starting a vegetable garden at the farm where vets can learn how to grow produce and then use that produce to make meals. Going one step further, McCalister hopes to can the produce and sell it one day.

"The idea is to do events and programming that vets feel proud about that they helped cook, helped grow. It's really self-worth is what it comes down to," Ramsay said.

The next meal, a BBQ dinner, will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. July 22 at the farm, 340 New London Turnpike in Stonington. Jack Chaplin, owner and chef at Daddy Jack's, will be leading the event. The series will culminate in a gala event at Mike's Famous Harley-Davidson in New London in October.

j.bergman@theday.com

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