He arrived as a seeming contradiction.
His closely cropped crew cut, not to mention the U.S. Special Operations Command insignia he sported, clearly signaled the presence of a military man. But the insignia stood out on his bright, white chef's jacket — his name embroidered in fancy stitching.
Military mettle and culinary care in the same persona?
It didn't take long for Sgt. Rene Marquis to make me realize Army precision and cooking passion can go together. As someone once said, the Army moves on its belly.
My initial meeting with Marquis came earlier this year at the Taste of Clearwater. I served as a celebrity judge, ready to chow down. Marquis, a certified American Culinary Federation judge, made it clear the role of scoring appetizers, entrees and desserts needed to be about more than stuffing my face. His succinct explanation of the rules underscored the serious nature of the competition.
The pride Jeffrey Hiott of Rusty's Bistro displayed in winning the culinary cookoff underscored the event's significance to the chefs.
Marquis, 39, knows that sensation. He judges and competes in international competitions such as the Culinary World Cup and the Culinary Olympics, where his teams have won numerous gold medals.
"I enjoy judging," Marquis said. "It's an opportunity to give back to young professionals, older professionals and even students. It's a chance to share my experiences from competitions, nationally and internationally. I want to share."
First and foremost, however, Marquis is the enlisted aide for the U.S. Special Operations Commander at MacDill Air Force Base and a five-star military master chef: the best of the best. His duties range from cooking a meal for a small group of dignitaries to preparing a holiday feast for 300, a task he tackled this week as he crafted everything from stuffed Brie to Christmas cookies.
"We'll have something for everyone, even vegetarians," said Marquis, who spent Wednesday carving ice for the event.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Marquis approaches his 19th year in the Army. He joined after a general lured him into the service from his job at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs. He holds four certifications from the culinary federation, including certified executive chef. He's also a member of the American Academy of Chefs.
The titles and training prove he's qualified, but he has a simpler measure for success.
"The last meal I prepared was lunch for 12 people, and all the plates came back empty," Marquis said. "When the plates come back empty, I've achieved my goal."
That simple core fuels his zeal for cooking. Only his love for playing hockey rivals his love for food, and it's as much about teaching others how to make a good meal as it is whipping up culinary delights. When he shares knowledge with his team on base, be it flavor profiles or techniques, he says they're kids on the playground.
A Riverview resident, he also teaches classes at the Rolling Pin in Brandon, where his Dec. 20 presentation will focus on holiday hors d'oeuvres that include petite crab Louis, blackened pork tenderloin canapes and Baja wraps.
When he completes his 20th year, Marquis will retire from the service. He's not sure what the future holds, be it a top-notch restaurant, resort, or television — he often appears on the locally broadcast Dining Out Radio with Ken Barber (his next appearance is Wednesday). No matter where he lands, I'm sure his culinary love will continue to sizzle.
Bon appetit, Rene.
That's all I'm saying.