FORWARD OPERATING BASE FRONTENAC, Afghanistan — The oldest soldier in Alpha Company has lived hard. He shuttled through foster homes in San Francisco as a child, busted his nose and scraped his knuckles in street brawls as a young man, deployed as a U.S. military medic in Iraq and campaigned against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
What has lifted this soldier through the hard times is a love of food.
U.S. Army Sgt. Abel Aceituno, 42, relies on the memories of food he has eaten in the past, and the dream of opening a restaurant in the future. It's his way of burrowing into private yearnings when comforts and safety are scarce.
For Aceituno, eating is more than refueling. He talks about food as both fun and sacred. Taste buds quiver.
"It's like a party in your mouth. You want to be able to taste every single flavor," he said. "You've got to learn how to make it right, because if you don't, you can insult the palate."
Aceituno gabs about paring knives, boning knives, steak knives, bread knives and butter knives; seasonings – thyme, basil, oregano, lemongrass, white and black pepper, five types of salt and powdered sugar versus granulated; and the hierarchy in a restaurant kitchen – head chef, sous-chef, saucier, prep cook, line cook, and the expediter, who prepares ingredients and adds condiments to dishes.
This world of the art and joy of food is a glimmer right now. Aceituno, nicknamed "Ace," is working a 12-hour night shift, compiling intelligence reports and monitoring radio traffic, at Alpha's command post at Forward Operating Base Frontenac.
The base, an austere spread of berms, blast walls and prefabricated housing north of Kandahar city, is home to the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of Task Force Stryker. The battalion is in a relatively calm area, and the yearlong tour of its brigade ends this summer.
There's food, plenty of it, at the chow hall. Omelettes – choose the ingredients you want to throw in – salads, T-bone steaks, pasta, pastries, apples, fruit punch, chocolate ice cream. As the saying goes, an army marches on its stomach.
With Aceituno, it's personal. He wants to open a restaurant in his hometown of Lakewood, Washington when he quits the army. His company commander, Capt. Michael Kovalsky of Fords, New Jersey, said Aceituno has promised to "save a table" for him, along with a personal bottle of 25-year-old Scotch whiskey.
Pvt. 1st Class Stephen Atwood said Aceituno dreams of making future customers feel like "king of their own fiefdom" when they sit down to eat. "I think that's the idea he likes, taking care of people," said Atwood of Fayetteville, Georgia.
He can't cook for his buddies now because he has no access to fresh ingredients or cooking equipment. But one day, he wants to seat everyone in his future restaurant at one big table.
"That's how strangers become friends. That's the kind of feeling I want in my restaurant," he said. "Rich flavors, rich ingredients, hopefully at a decent price."
Aceituno's calling came around the age of nine. His father was absent and his alcoholic mother had given him up for adoption. Dark days in abusive homes followed. Sometimes, he wasn't fed. Then Elaine O'Connor, an Irish woman, took him to Northern Ireland, and schooled him in a love of food.
"She's the one that got me involved in cooking," said Aceituno, a stocky man whose temperament has cooled with age, marking him apart from younger soldiers, some half his age. "She told me you can't hate anything until you try it. You try it and it's up to you to spit it out."
O'Connor taught him stews and soups, and he learned to make shepherd's pie and Yorkshire pudding, a batter dish that traditionally goes with roast beef. She quizzed him in the kitchen. She gave him a cookbook that grabbed his imagination – "It was like a story, the way it was written. ... it was like one-on-one conversation: 'Hey, this is what you've got to do. Make sure you do this before you do this.'"
He also learned from his grandfather, who cooked in the merchant navy:
"He showed me how to cook stuff. I think it was in my blood... Every port he went, he tried the food. That stuck to me. Chinese, Vietnamese, Irish, African American, Italian, Mexican. Eating everybody else's food."
While food has shaped Aceituno, so has conflict. It was the time of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, the revolt against British rule. Older boys cajoled him into lobbing rocks at the "green box," the armored vehicle used by British forces.
He moved back to San Francisco and his mother sent him to visit relatives in Lebanon in the midst of civil war. He remembers sandbags and buildings gutted by fire, but also colors, paints and music. He brewed "Turkish coffee." Then, living alone as a teenager in California, he fell in with gangs. He got out, but his brother – "a hardcore member of the Mexican gang" – is in jail.
Starting as a dishwasher, Aceituno worked in at least 10 restaurants and learned about sauces – Bolognese, Alfredo, garlic brie – in San Francisco's North Beach area, home to Italian eateries and coffee shops.
"The way I associated cooking, is entertaining. Who you're inviting over. You already know their lifestyle, so you want to put that food to their demeanor for the night," he said. If they're drinking gin or vodka, he said, you want to give them something that won't sicken them the next day – say, a "good light salad but with some carbos in it" – pasta or potatoes.
One of Aceituno's favorite dishes is ciapino, a stew with crabs, clams and mussels. He likes it spicy. He also makes a mean veal piccata – "there's nothing like it in the world."
In the military, Aceituno and barracks buddies sometimes pulled out their own Tupperware and paper plates, shaking pork chops, flour and powdered garlic in a plastic bag. They used beer and hard liquor as a marinade. Aceituno chopped vegetables in the palm of his hand. The soldiers fired up burners.
Aceituno arrived in Iraq in 2003 before the insurgency mushroomed. In the city of Karbala, his crew bought potatoes, bread, lamb, chicken, and once, a whole cow; they barbecued it in a pit. They wrapped chicken in aluminum foil and tucked it beside Humvee exhaust pipes or around the engine block while on patrol – hours later, the meat was cooked and succulent.
He said one of the most memorable dishes he ate was in Iraq, where Iraqis fried up green onion and potatoes until they were crispy, then poured beaten eggs into the mix and flipped it in the pan. "It was so good," Aceituno said. "It was fresh."
After weeks of field rations, Aceituno sampled Afghan cooking during the Marjah operation when two interpreters prepared rice and a tomato-based sauce in a cauldron over a wood fire. He dove in, chopping tomatoes.
Today, he seems more vulnerable than tough. He owns a fearsome Bowie knife, but likes to read whodunnits rather than horse around, and has a bum knee. He is single and his shorn black hair has flecks of white. If he opens a restaurant, he might call it "Ace in the Hole" or "Aces and Eights" after the poker game.
When he looks back at his life, Aceituno looks back at food.
"Everything I did involves food. Food, food, food, food," Aceituno said. "I had a great life. I ate well."