Mercyhurst University

You are here

Navy vet navigates challenging course to culinary degree

Monday, November 10, 2014

Veteran Chris Dax at work in MNE culinary lab.

Chris Dax has traveled the world in the U.S. Navy and raised a family. Now he’s preparing for his next adventure: working as a chef.

After a stint in the Navy and a career as a factory worker, the 43-year-old veteran is pursuing his passion for cooking as a student in the hospitality management – culinary arts program at Mercyhurst North East.

“I’ve always enjoyed cooking for my family,” said Dax, a resident of Gifford, Pa. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in school, but my classes in the culinary program so far have been great.”

Dax served in the Navy from 1991 to 1995, loading bombs and missiles onto planes and managing weapons systems aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the now-decommissioned USS John F. Kennedy.

“It was a great experience for me,” Dax said. “Had I picked a different branch of the military, I might have stayed and made a career of it, but I couldn’t keep spending six months at a time at sea.”

Even during his first deployment, the passion for cooking was there; Dax worked in the galley as part of his temporary additional duty.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I did enjoy it,” he said, with a smile.

For the second consecutive year, Mercyhurst University has received Military Friendly Status from, a military education and employment advocacy group, in recognition for offering on-campus military support and high flexibility in course scheduling.

“We are proud of the veterans and members of their families who are studying at Mercyhurst,” said Steve Zidek, advisor for the veterans association on campus. “They are a highly diversified group of individuals who are resilient and dedicated and bring a depth of experience to the university that we all can appreciate.”

After leaving the Navy, Dax worked in a factory to pay the bills while he and his wife, Tristan, raised three children. Now that their house and cars are paid off and the kids have graduated and moved out, Dax decided the time was right to pursue what he’s always wanted to do.

“I wanted to go to school to do something I want to do for the rest of my working years, rather than stay someplace where I wasn’t happy,” he said.

He’d always enjoyed preparing food for his family at home, so he set his sights on a culinary degree. The prospect of an associate degree, rather than a certificate, brought him to Mercyhurst North East.

Though the 90-minute commute from his home near Bradford, Pa., can be challenging – some days keeping him on campus from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. – Dax has risen to the challenge. The skills he learned in the Navy – namely organization, responsibility and zealousness for being on time – have served him well in college. He finished his first year with a 4.0 GPA, and is finding success in his second year, too.

“My computer applications class this semester has been interesting, learning about different programs,” Dax said, “but the culinary classes are my favorites.”

This autumn, Dax is involved with the Culinary & Wine Institute’s International Dining Series at Lake View Country Club. On Oct. 16, he and his fellow students prepared a meal of Dax’s design, a lineup of Spanish-inspired cuisine that included gazpacho; avocado, orange and almond salad; paella Valencia; and for dessert, honey-baked figs with toasted hazelnut ice cream.

“We work together really well,” Dax said of his fellow students. “And the meal was great.”

Dax counts seafood among his favorite things to cook – perhaps a remnant of his time spent at sea – along with “anything new I haven’t tried before.”

With a career as a chef as his goal, Dax has already lined up an internship and potential job prospect at Vavalo’s Bar and Restaurant, a well-known restaurant near his home on the verge of reopening after a fire nearly destroyed the building in 2003.

“I’m excited about it; it’s a good opportunity close to home, and the restaurant operations look very promising,” he said.

Dax admits that adjusting to the relative youth of the students at Mercyhurst North East was a challenge at first – “most of these kids are young enough to be my kids,” he joked – but now he fits right in. Almost 25 years after graduating high school, enrolling in college has had its challenges, but Dax said his experiences at Mercyhurst North East have been positive and he’s learned a lot about the field he loves.

“The hardest thing was to convince myself that I could do it,” Dax said. “When I started thinking of going to school, because it had been so long, I thought it would be a difficult transition for me, but it’s actually been smooth and easy.”