Chef Rene Marquis never considered joining the Army until he fed a three-star general.
The Lewiston native was working at the massive Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs when the general struck up a conversation.
“Why don’t you come be my chef?” he asked.
“I was like, ‘I’m not joining the Army,’” Marquis said. Then the high-ranking officer began to describe the financial package he’d likely earn.
Marquis scrambled to put on a uniform.
“They paid off my student loans to the Culinary Institute of America and I got a $40,000 cash bonus,” he said.
He endured eight weeks of basic training. Then, he shipped off to Fort Lee, Va., for advanced training.
“That lasted, oh, three days,” Marquis said. He was a chef again. “I started working for that commander because he was from Fort Lee.”
Seventeen years later, Marquis, now a sergeant first class, is still in the Army and still preparing food. He has become one of the military’s elite chefs, training other personal chefs and food staff at Camp David and the White House to do their jobs more efficiently.
He also continues to work as a personal chef, now aiding the commander of United States Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.
“It’s a great job,” Marquis said. “We do everything from lunch for two people to dinner parties for 24.
“Because of the command I’m in, I’ve actually done a Christmas party for 1,500 people.”
For Marquis, the benefits of such work is second only to teaching.
“There’s nothing more rewarding,” he said. “I know that’s why teachers do what they do for the little money they make.”
Marquis grew up in Lewiston. Before graduating in 1990, he spent his last year enrolled in the culinary program at Lewiston Regional Technical Center. He also helped open the now-closed Ground Round in Auburn and worked at Lewiston’s Cathay Hut.
After high school, he attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. and graduated in 1992.
“I was classically trained,” he said. “ The way I cook is the way I was trained, classical preparation with my own little twist on things. Honestly, all the food in America comes from some type of classical approach.
“Whether you’re cooking for one or you’re cooking for 1,000, if you know how to properly roast chicken it’s the same,” he said.
It was that background that he took into the Army.
“We don’t do a lot of classical cooking for lunch because everyone’s trying to eat healthier,” he said. For dinner, he allows himself to go to some of the heavier ingredients such as cream and butter.
He has no specialties. Rather, he works to make a broad menu of items in the best way possible.
It has worked. In his 17 years in the Army, he has visited 15 countries. Among his destinations have been several international cooking competitions.
In November, he plans to enter his third Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg as part of the U.S. military team. He has competed there twice before, coming in second both times.
His team of five will prepare a seven-course meal for 150 people. He hopes the team will bring back a championship.
It would be a legacy moment for Marquis. Now 38, he plans to leave the military when he becomes eligible in three years.
“I’m sure the Army would like to keep me, but I am not staying,” he said.
He figures there is no place else to go at this point as a chef in the military. Even a job at the White House holds little interest for him.
“That would be a step back for me,” he said. “I don’t want to cook for one family for the rest of my life, nor do I want to cook for a large group of secret service agents.”
His options are wide open.
“I’ve actually had a lot of job offers,” he said. “I’m not sure if I am going to get my own place or if I am going back into education.”
Nor is he sure where he wants to work. He has time. And every place holds some kind of appeal, he said.
“I’ve lived in 15 states in the U.S.” he said. “ And whenever I go to a new state, I try to find what the specialty is. They said the Midwest is good for beef and barbecue. But I made good barbecue right here in Florida; I make citrus barbecue. I use the orange and grapefruit juice and I make the barbecue sauce with that.”
Maine also holds an appeal. His mom lives in Auburn and his dad lives in Gardiner.
“We have great food in Florida, but it’s not like home. Home is home.”
What does he eat when he comes home?
“I want to eat as much lobster as I possibly can,” he said. There are also fried clams and whoopie pies.
“And you can’t beat a Sam’s Italian sandwich,” he said. “They just don’t make stuff like that down here.”
Rene Marquis’ Down East Clam Chowder
2 quarts little neck clams, steamed, liquor reserved
3-4 pounds potatoes, peeled and diced
1/2 pound lean salt pork
3 large sweet onions, sliced
2 whole bay leaves
1 thick slice of bacon
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2-3 green onions or leeks, finely chopped
2-3 stalks of celery with green leafy tops
1-2 pounds frozen sweet corn
1 pint cream
1 quart clam broth or water
1/2 gallon milk
1 pinch celery seed
3-4 tablespoons flour
1 stick butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt, pepper and paprika to taste
Thoroughly wash clams, scrubbing shells. If you’re using freshly dug clams, sprinkle the washed clams with corn meal the night before use and refrigerate overnight to allow the clams to be sand free. On the day the chowder is to be prepared, steam, clean and shuck enough clams to have at least two quarts of clams (more is better!). Save the clam liquor (broth created while steaming). Refrigerate the cooked clams in their liquor.
Meanwhile, prepare the chowder base. Using a sharp knife, slice the salt pork (pancetta can be substituted) into 1/8-inch dice (including rind). In a large stockpot, on the lowest heat setting, add salt pork to pan; add bacon (also chopped). Cook over low heat for 15 minutes, allowing salt pork to render. Remove from heat and allow to sit for another 15 minutes. Add olive oil and one tablespoon of the butter (save remaining butter for later).
Sauté thinly sliced celery (save green celery leaves for later), and sliced onion in the rendered salt pork and bacon until onions take on color, adding minced garlic during the final few minutes of browning. Add clam liquor or water, scraping browned onion bits from bottom of pan. Add two whole bay leaves and a pinch of celery seed, if desired. Add finely chopped green onions or leeks. Simmer for 15 minutes.
Wash, peel and cut the potatoes into one-inch cubes. Add to the pot. Bring to a boil for 30 seconds,then reduce heat to barely a simmer. Chowder may be thickened with a small amount of all-purpose flour, Wondra flour or a few tablespoons corn starch stirred into a cup of cold broth. When adding thickeners, be sure to allow at least 30 minutes of cooking time in order to prevent an uncooked flour taste. More thickener can be added if you like a thicker chowder base; remember that milk/cream are still to be added later, so add more than you think you’ll need to compensate.
After 20-30 minutes, check potatoes to see if they are tender. When potatoes are nearly done, add frozen corn. Be sure to use a good quality frozen corn; the sweeter varieties improve the overall flavor of the chowder. Stir in clams and stained clam liquor (be careful not to pour in the bottom of the clam liquor, which usually contains sand!) Add milk and cream in the ratio you desire; for a richer chowder, add more cream and less milk. Simmer for another 15 minutes and add remaining butter, minced parsley, chopped green celery leaves and salt and pepper, to taste.
Remove bay leaves (or simply don’t let them make it into a serving!). When butter has melted and clams are heated through, serve in warmed bowls, sprinkled with paprika and garnished with fresh parsley. Milk crackers are a traditional accompaniment. Variations: To add addition flavor to this soup, especially when clam broth is not available, use a few teaspoons of clam base, available at restaurant supply stores. Large chunks of white fish or lobster can be added during the last 20 minutes in addition to (or as a substitute for) the clams, for a seafood chowder. Also the yuppies of New England these days season the chowda with Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce.
Serves 10-12 people
Next week: You may save your vodka for your martinis. Espo’s saves it for its special Penne Vodka. An Espo’s specialty you’ll be rushin’ to try.