MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga., July 24, 2014 —
He can bust down a burning door and save lives from a flaming inferno, and if the kitchen survives, he might whip up some elegant blackened salmon, too.
On duty, Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip Burns II is a fire inspector with the 23rd Civil Engineer Squadron. On duty, he ensures fire code compliance across the base. Off duty, the 33-year-old staff sergeant does almost everything he can to fulfill his appetite for good cooking: teaching youth cooking classes, competing in cook-offs, cooking for friends, and even working as a chef at a local restaurant.
Burns has been cooking for "15 years strong, at five different bases and through six deployments," he said. "I cook on a regular basis, and I always try to challenge myself with whatever I'm cooking."
Burns' interest in cooking is fueled by a desire to improve, he said, sparked by a fellow airman's badgering.
"It was because one day I was told that I couldn't cook, and it went from there," he said. "I brought [leftovers] to work to eat. … I tried to warm lasagna up in a skillet. Everybody laughed and said, 'Burns, you don't know how to cook at all. This is horrible. You can't do this with a skillet.' From then on, we were always challenging each other to cook better."
Eric Mortensen, the 23rd CES assistant fire chief, said Burns simply enjoys taking on a new venture.
"He's very interested in expanding his horizons, and he's very adventurous," Mortensen said. "This is just one more thing. He's passionate about everything he does. Burns has jumped into cooking. He also did some gardening with no background in that, either. He grew some stuff, grew it very large, and entered it into a farmers market fair. Most people don't do that. He just picks a thing and goes."
Though he's taken his cooking seriously only for the past 15 years, Burns said, he has always been in the kitchen.
"One of my vivid memories when I was younger is my father and mother cooking regularly," he said. "We were a cooking family. We all got into the kitchen and cooked."
Burns' cooking has been largely self-taught, but he still looks to his family for guidance.
"I call my grandmother on a regular basis," he said. "Recently, I called her and asked how to make eggplant parmesan. … She broke it down and talked me through it. [Cooking] is a family affair."
Burns said he cooks at least four times a week for himself or for anyone who asks.
"My running motto is, 'If you buy, I'll cook,'" he said. "Twice a week I get the call: 'Hey I got this [food], can you make me something, because I really don't feel like cooking,' and I say, ‘No problem. I'll be over shortly.’"
His drive to improve his cooking abilities has led him to a second job as a culinary cook, where he is responsible for pasta dishes and bringing the main dish together.
"I figured I wanted to learn how to cook better," he said. "Why not go to a place that people really enjoy and learn their recipes and how to make their sauces? Then I can make it my own."
He somehow manages to balance two work schedules: his full-time calling to serve the Air Force and his part-time calling to serve up a tasty dish. "The great don't sleep,” he said.
Burns is a man with many goals. He's reached one recently by being selected for promotion to technical sergeant, and now he's moving forward with numerous food-related ambitions.
"I plan on going to culinary school after I go to [the Noncommissioned Officers Academy]," he said. "If I have to pay for it myself, I'll go. It's an opportunity to become better, and there are [always more] things I can learn."
He also wants to open a business called “Phillies Cheesecakes.”
"I want to sell cheesecakes," he explained. "I've already started making different recipes: fresh strawberries, fresh blueberries, lemon, regular New York style, … all kinds of different cheesecakes."
In addition to culinary school and a business, Burns said he has one more goal. He wants to best a famous chef.
"My ultimate goal is to get the opportunity to meet someone from the Food Network and challenge them,” he said. “Meet them, challenge them and maybe learn something from them."
Burns said the primary reason he enjoys cooking is because it brings people together.
"There have been plenty of times when different issues [occurred], and I was able to make those things better by sitting down and breaking bread with some people," he said. "You get to become personable with them, you get to talk and enjoy each other. That's why I enjoy doing it. It really brings people together."