These NJ Restaurant Notables Went from Military Service to Hospitality Service

In honor of Veterans Day, three veterans share their stories of going from the military to the New Jersey restaurant world.

Tim Sengle, regional manager of David Burke Hospitality Management, and chef David Burke
From left: Tim Sengle, regional manager of David Burke Hospitality Management, and chef David Burke Photo: Courtesy of David Burke Hospitality Management

Veterans Day, observed every November 11, honors the men and women who have served in the U.S. armed forces. It’s estimated that between 350,000 and 400,000 veterans make New Jersey their home. Here we meet a trio of accomplished vets who brought their military-honed high standards to Jersey restaurant careers, in their own words.

Tim Sengle, U.S. Navy Regional Manager, David Burke Hospitality Management

“My dad, uncle and grandfather were all Navy men. When I was 24, in 1986, I enlisted on Thanksgiving Day weekend. I enlisted for a few reasons. One, the Navy was a family tradition. Two, I was working in restaurants and wasn’t sure how far that would take me. And in the Navy you can learn an interesting skill.

I was supposed to do my basic training in February at the Navy station on Lake Michigan in Chicago. It was a cold winter and I knew I’d freeze up there. I asked my Navy recruitment officer if he could get me to the training camp in San Diego. He said, “Give me a minute.” He called me back with, “Yes I can, but you got to leave Monday.”

My training was in Aviation Anti Sub Warfare, which was like what you see in the movie Hunt for Red October. The training was intense and included flight school in Pensacola, Florida.

The job is: you’re in the air hunting for non-U.S. submarines. I was stationed mainly in Brunswick, Maine. I was the wingman on Navy planes scanning the North Atlantic on radar screens. If we saw a sub we’d drop a buoy for security surveillance tracking. We had 12 hours of flight time, and you had to concentrate, stay focused, and keep track of all the details. I’d always had those abilities, and the work was never boring. I was in the Navy until 1991.

There are similarities between the restaurant management and military service. The pace is fast; there’s always something to get done. You need to run an efficient operation, with everyone doing their job. And you must have an organized storeroom: a place for everything and everything in its place. This also goes for the kitchen, dining room and other service areas of the restaurant. In any organization with a lot of moving parts, you have order or you have chaos.

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My approach to my job is similar to being in the service too. I employ the same mindset as I did when in service. I still dress with the Navy “gig line”–in which all your seams, buttons, zippers align to form straight lines from your neck to your shoes.

I still respect the chain of command. In the Navy, when a commanding officer gives an order, you execute that order to the best of your ability. I came on board David Burke Hospitality Management at the beginning of Covid four years ago. “Make it happen” skills were essential to keep restaurants open when we were operating inside and outside under all the restrictions. But I saw the big picture.

My title—although I’m not into titles— is Regional Manager. I’m a floater and I’ve worked in all of Chef Burke’s New Jersey restaurants. I live in Morris County and go wherever Chef Burke needs me at the moment. I ask the necessary questions, put my head down and get it done.

Recently, Chef Burke said he wanted me to help out in his new restaurant in Rhode Island “for a couple of days.” I asked him for 24 hours to get ready, and Chef says, “Hey, it’s just a couple of days, but OK.” And yes, he called me 24 hours later and asked where I was. I told him, “I’m driving on Interstate 95 North to Rhode Island.”

The punchline is: Two—not days—but two months later I’m on Interstate 95 South returning to New Jersey. The Rhode Island restaurant was running smoothly. I got the job done for someone I respect. (Adds Chef David Burke: “It’s great to have a ‘go-to’ guy like Tim on my team. If I’m the quarterback like Tom Brady, then Tim Sengle is my Rob Gronkowski, the tight end. We ‘deploy’ Tim to assist and problem-solve. His can-do attitude is extremely valuable.”)”

Hank Reed, U.S. Coast Guard Executive Chef and Operations Director, Mazur Café and Chocolate Lab (Hackettstown)

“I graduated from Woodbridge High School and enlisted in the Coast Guard when I was 19. I did my eight weeks of boot camp at the base in Cape May. Boot camp is a lot harder than the gym class. It’s tough physically and emotionally. It breaks you down and puts you back together as a sailor.

My first assignment after boot camp was a station job where you do a lot of things before choosing your “rate”–your one path for the remainder of your service. I was at the USCG Station in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on the lower Mississippi River. In the Coast Guard, you’re on a boat, either an engineer belowdecks or a deckhand above. I was a deckhand on a buoy tender, a big barge on which you repair or replace heavy, slippery buoys. The work was varied and I enjoyed it. You’re outdoors on the river and your crew lassoes the buoys. It’s very split-second and heart-thumping.

Hank Reed

Hank Reed in his U.S. Coast Guard days. Photo: Courtesy of Hank Reed

I did that for a little over a year and decided on my rate. There’s a little background to what I chose. I’d started cooking as a child and I worked as a cook and bar back [assistant bartender] in high school. So, back to the buoy tender. The cook took a leave and there was no one to step in. I volunteered. And I’m cooking for 20 guys, breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snack. I worked almost around the clock, with some breaks, naps, and a three-hour sleep from two till five in the morning.

But I liked it. I was given a credit card to order and shop for food. We’d dock in these small river towns where I’d buy fresh food. I learned to be super-organized, a problem-solver, and a meal planner working far in advance. My biggest challenge was storing food–your stack it in your freezer with your last meal’s provisions on the bottom and the first on top, and work your way down. I also learned how to be really diplomatic, get along with everyone–even the difficult personalities. It’s a good feeling to be part of a team.

All in all I liked being a military cook. Next I went to what I called “Coast Guard culinary school” in Petaluma, Sonoma County, California. It’s a 10-week cooking course and it’s very thorough. They teach you all the basics. What all your tools and utensils are for and what everything in the kitchen does. Then recipes. What sailors like is what civilians like: tuna melts, shepherd’s pie, beef stroganoff. Then I learned what to do in in a kitchen by rotating through the cooking stations: prep, griddle, salad, vegetables, meat, dessert.

Hank Reed and his son Brandon

Hank Reed with his son Brandon. Photo: Courtesy of Hank Reed

Afterwards, I went back to the East Coast as a Coast Guard cook. I was stationed at a base in Boston, right on the harbor. I was able to live off-base and really enjoyed Boston. I was doing maritime safety and law enforcement on a 270-foot cutter with around 100 men and women sailors. I moved up through the ranks and ran kitchen operations. I had a kitchen crew and trained them and did all the ordering, just like what a civilian executive chef does.

My galley [kitchen] on the cutter became a real favorite. It made me proud that no one aboard skipped meals, and sailors do that on other boats because the food can be boring. But I was determined to make our mess deck a fun place. We sailed the North Atlantic and South Atlantic coasts, and the ingredients were eye-popping. On the coasts of Maine and Atlantic Canada, I’d buy lobsters. Down South and in the Caribbean, the fish was so fresh and meaty, and in the tropics, like Brazil, the fruit and vegetables were unbelievable. The crew loved the variety of my menus. And they loved my Sunday Prime Rib, and my grandmother’s recipe, what she called Chickens***, and what I renamed Creamy Chicken and Rice Casserole, with a topping of fried onions. Oh, is it good.

I stayed on that cutter for three and a half years. I not only learned to cook in the Coast Guard. I made several lifelong friends. And by being in the military, which is based on hierarchy, I learned how effective organizations work: everyone knows their place and does their job. A kitchen is a hierarchy, and it’s essential for a young chef to figure that out and accept it. Since my Coast Guard service, I’ve worked in all sorts of kitchens, from white-tablecloth Italian to ribs. And like in the Coast Guard, moving up as a chef means you’re hardworking and reliable. You never stop learning and trying to do better. And you’re all about the team.”

Robert Levenson, U.S. Navy Executive Chef, Resorts Casino Hotel (Atlantic City)

“My father was an Army veteran and I enlisted in the service right after Lakewood High. I chose the Navy because a good friend from school had enlisted and she was happy with her decision. I served from December 1998 through December 2002.

I did boot camp for eight weeks in Great Lakes, Illinois. It was rough but I persevered and got through it. Then I was stationed out of Naval Station Norfolk on Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. It’s quite a place—over a hundred years old and the world’s biggest naval station, with well over ten miles of piers. It’s very strategically set midway on the East Coast and houses the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command and Naval Air Station.

I was at sea on my ship for most of my service. I was on a frigate, which is smaller than an aircraft carrier or destroyer. But our ship, the USS Klakring, was still ample, with around 400 men and women in the crew. We sailed up and down the North Atlantic and South Atlantic and over to Europe, including the Mediterranean. I lived aboard the ship. We slept in bunk beds stacked three high, with a bed curtain for privacy and a locker for your gear. It was like a no-frills dorm. But you’re 18 or 20 and you don’t mind.

Robert Levenson

Robert Levenson Photo: Courtesy of Robert Levenson

I had known early on as a kid that the culinary world would be my career path. So I elected to be an MS: Mess Specialist, or cook. I worked in the galley—the mess kitchen—preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner daily for the crew. While the other sailors were above decks doing drills, safety checks and maintenance, I was in the galley. Our crew of six cooks worked almost nonstop from 6 a.m. till 9 p.m. But it was calm and orderly in that galley because we were a team. We were super-organized and completely understood our responsibilities.

We made all kinds of food, mostly from scratch: dishes, sauces, soups, breads, pastries. A Navy galley is focused on productivity, not creativity. So an MS’s job is to precisely and perfectly produce the Navy’s recipes. This tight focus on process really sharpened my kitchen skills.

The MS crew worked hard but we had good resources. The Navy recipes were well thought out and flavorful, and the ingredients we got were high-quality. Often, we’d order fresh provisions that we’d pick up in our next Navy port. It would be right on the wharf when we docked. Or if we were at sea near the coastline a Navy jet would fly our supplies onto the ship.

Robert Levenson

Robert Levenson in his U.S. Navy days. Photo: Courtesy of Robert Levenson

The Navy’s aim was to feed its sailors nutritious and tasty food that would fuel their all-day activity. What we cooked was American comfort food. The MS crew was happy with it and so were our shipmates. Some sailor favorites were meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs, chili mac, turkey tetrazzini, which is a creamy pasta dish, fried chicken and chicken à la king, which is like chicken pot pie filling. Breakfast was a real treat for the sailors, because they could order pretty much a custom omelet.

My favorite thing to cook was bread. Baking is a mind game because it’s very technical, and you have to get everything right: your starter, your proportions, your mixing, your heat, your timing. I’ll never forget the Hobart mixer, which used 50 pounds of flour alone. And our cinnamon rolls were memorable too. Our sandwich loaves were also very good. Desserts tended toward simple but satisfying frosted sheet cakes and sometimes brownies.

Once I left the Navy, I used my GI bill money for college. I went to Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing for the two-year program at their Academy of Culinary Arts. I had already learned so much about cooking in the Navy that I had a head start on my studies.

I can honestly say that my Navy experience has been the most significant influence on my culinary career. My military service taught me not only about cooking good food and lots of it, but also about discipline. I apply my Navy discipline to my daily life. This means I’m timely and prepared. I stay in my routine, follow the rules and work hard. I always strive to be a true professional. That’s someone who is courteous and respectful, fair but firm. Someone whose goal is to work with the crew, make the right choices and finish the job. Someone who leads by example and is a role model.

Having been a petty officer in the Navy, on the low end of the chain of command, I learned that you have to follow before you can lead. My experience on the USS Klakring keeps me aware of my entire team at Resorts now. I manage ten chefs and 150 cooks and I know the pressures they face.

Over 20 years later, I still enjoy the friendship of some of my Navy buddies. I’d be all for it if my two daughters chose to serve. I’d be a proud Navy dad.”

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