GRAF IGNATIEVO, Bulgaria --
“Lunch is ready!” shouted Staff Sgt. Justin Bonner, a munitions Airman assigned to the 104th Fighter Wing, Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts.
Bonner and several fellow Airmen, currently deployed as part of the 131st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron to Graf Ignatievo, Bulgaria, in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, volunteer their spare time to cook lunch and dinner every day for approximately 250 deployed members. He heard of the need for people to help with the food operation from his first sergeant and quickly offered to spearhead the project.
The kitchen is called the Bare Grille -- named because of the limited amount resources the team has to accomplish the task. The Airmen serve up meals using three grills, three refrigerators and a handful of tables for food preparation.
“Thanks to a collective mindset of everyone [on the team], we quickly turned an entire tent area into a fully functional kitchen producing an extremely fresh and healthy menu that changes daily,” Bonner said. “Relative to the typical ‘burger burn,’ I have made it a point to serve anything but that.”
Bonner said he has always been drawn to cooking but faced a few challenges, including his limited culinary experience and product availability. However, he credits his girlfriend’s father, Chef Anthony, for cooking tips and recipe ideas.
“I like to put a twist on things and offer new menu items most people haven't tasted before like chili raspberry vinaigrette for example,” Bonner said. “We also offer a selection of Bulgarian cow cheeses from different dairy farms to accompany salads and meats.”
Airmen buy the food and supplies locally, often travelling to multiple markets to buy fresh baked breads, meats and freshly-picked herbs. Often Bonner comes up with unique and healthy dishes depending on the kind of available ingredients. Some of the dishes include Greek-marinated pork chops with grilled Bulgarian zucchini; chicken thighs with grilled tomatoes and basil; a cool cucumber salad; grilled Italian meatballs and garlic bread. Most meals come with a salad and various homemade dressings.
“Healthy and creative are the two main goals,” Bonner said. “A collective effort from the entire team is one of the main attributes to the success of The Bare Kitchen.”
Lt. Col. David Halasi-Kun, 131st EFS detachment commander, said Bonner’s dedication to his fellow Airmen demonstrates how all Guardsmen remain mission-focused problem solvers able to leverage their civilian skills to rise well above expectations and consistently set new standards both for this theater security package and beyond.
“The lunch operation in Bulgaria epitomizes what we are as Barnestormers,” Halasi-Kun said. “The men and women who make up the ‘lunch crew’ are shining examples of the hard work, dedication and resourcefulness that make the 131st EFS successful.”