Rene J. Marquis
Major: Culinary Arts
Job Title: Executive Chef, Sgt 1st Class, U.S. Army
Location: Lewiston, ME
Four Life-Changing Words: “Come To My School”
The career goals of Sergeant First Class Rene J. Marquis ’92, CEC, CCE, PCEC, CCA, AAC did not include the army, but two chance meetings would take the 19-year veteran to 52 countries around the world cooking, teaching, and competing while proudly serving his country.
Rene’s first job—as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant in his hometown of Lewiston, ME—sparked an interest in cooking. During his senior year in high school, he enrolled in the culinary program at Lewiston Regional Technical Center. At a culinary competition in New Hampshire, he met CIA chef-instructor Fritz Sonnenschmidt, who said, “Come to my school.” That moment changed Rene’s life.
“I made the decision once I visited the CIA,” recalls Rene, “that I was determined to go to the best cooking school in the world.” Sonnenschmidt, former CIA culinary dean and heritage professor of the college, became Rene’s mentor, friend, and guiding force in his career. “Fritz is a legend in so many people’s lives and is directly responsible for what I’ve become as a chef,” says Rene. “He really believed in me and, as soon as I was eligible, he nominated me to the American Academy of Chefs, the honor society for the American Culinary Federation.”
Chance meeting number two came following Rene’s CIA graduation, while he was working as garde manger and chef tournant at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs, CO. A three-star general from a nearby military base frequented the dining room and enjoyed Rene’s creations. One day he asked, “Why don’t you come be my chef?”
“At first I resisted the idea of the military. I had no desire to enlist until the general explained the benefits,” says Rene. “The Army paid off my student loans and I received a sign-on cash bonus. Basic training came as a surprise to me. Physically it was demanding but mentally it was easy because of the discipline instilled at the CIA.”
After serving as an enlisted aide to two generals, Rene requested to be assigned to the 18th Airborne, Ala Carte Troop Feeding Dining Facility at Fort Drum, NY. At the rapid-deployment, state-of-the-art venue, he served as a shift leader. “It was the largest facility in the 18th Airborne,” says Rene. “We were feeding about 750 for breakfast, 1,200 for lunch, and about 750 for dinner.” While at Fort Drum, Rene was himself deployed four times to locations including Bosnia, Kuwait, and Panama.
“Any job I’ve had goes back to my culinary principles and my training from the CIA,” explains Rene. “I try to make the best possible food the best possible way for small or large groups. The dining facilities are like local restaurants. They’re not called mess halls anymore. The food is more diverse and sophisticated. The best feelings for me is when food goes to the table, you can hear a pin drop, watch the expressions on people’s faces, and see the excitement that overcomes them when they’re dining. It’s phenomenal.”
Back in the states, Rene served as the senior chef-instructor at the Quartermaster Center and School with the Army Center of Excellence, Subsistence at in Fort Lee, VA. There he taught the flagship culinary course for all of the military services—the Advanced Culinary Skills Training Course, which focused on mastering the fundamentals of cookery and pastry preparation.
In addition to his teaching duties, Rene was drawn to the world of culinary competitions. “The idea of competitions appealed to me as soon as I joined the service. When you expose yourself to a competition you’re against your peers. You have to bring your ‘A’ game,” Rene explains. “At Fort Lee, events are held annually where every installation brings their best cooks to compete. From that pool of talent the culinary team is selected for the Culinary Olympics, the largest American Culinary Federation-sanctioned competition in the world.”
In 2004, Rene was one of six competing members of the United States Army Culinary Arts Team (USACAT) at the Culinary Olympics. That year USACAT won 16 gold and 17 silver medals, the highest medal count for any one team from any one country. He followed that up by serving as team captain of USACAT at the Culinary World Cup in 2006, winning 12 gold medals, and at the 2008 Culinary Olympics, finishing in second place overall while earning 13 gold medals.
Today Rene is one of the highest-certified chefs in the military, and is one of only four certified ACF judges on active duty—and the only CIA grad among those. In 2005, he became one of the youngest members ever inducted into the American Academy of Chefs.
Rene’s competitive spirit recently got some national television exposure. He was a contestant on the first season of the Food Network program Cutthroat Kitchen on an episode entitled Tiny Tools, Big Problems. “I really wanted to go on one of those shows while I’m on active duty so people in America know we have military chefs that will beat any civilian chef you put forward,” he says. The show aired on September 22, 2013 with Rene beating out three other contestants for the top prize.
Currently stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL, Rene serves as the enlisted aide to the commander of United States Special Operations Command, one of only 90 such positions in the entire army. He regularly judges culinary competitions; teaches classes for food enthusiasts at a culinary center in Brandon, FL; serves as a private chef; participates in charity fundraisers; and recently started a YouTube cooking series called Dinner Boot Camps.
Despite his busy schedule, Rene makes sure to stay in touch with his mentor Fritz Sonnenschmidt. “I was honored to assist him with one of his cookbooks. He is still active and serves as an ambassador to the CIA,” Rene says. “I follow in his footsteps to get the word out about a CIA education. I tell students to come up with a plan and stick to it. Working hard while you’re young is the best way to get ahead. With a CIA degree you get as much as you put into it.”
And like his mentor, Rene gets the most satisfaction and pleasure from teaching. “Once a teacher, always as teacher,” he says. “I’ve been very blessed in my career.”