TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – “When I learned what my Air Force job was going to be back in basic, I had that heart-dropping moment where you just think, ‘God, really?’”
By outward appearances, the dining facility at Travis Air Force Base is run-of-the-mill. So ordinary, in fact, that you could easily be lulled into the idea that nothing special occurred there, but according to Senior Airman Oscar Callejas, 60th Force Support Squadron food service shift worker, you’d be wrong to think so.
“Even after I had finally come to terms with my job after that initial disappointment in basic, I still felt I had landed on what I perceived to be one of the lower rungs on the Air Force job ladder,” said Callejas. “But what I ended up realizing was that during that time I was so angry with what I had been chosen to do, I was only ever coloring my job with what effort I was willing to give to it.”
For Callejas, it isn’t the job itself that’s glamorous, it’s his tenacity and determination to bring every ounce of himself to the task at hand, no matter what adversity might attempt to swerve him from that course. This elevates it from unfortunate happenstance to something intensely personal—a reflection of who he is as a person and all the colors and facets that lend to that identity.
Growing up in Puebla, México, cooking was an integral part of Callejas’ upbringing. With a grandmother who managed five different restaurants in what is often described as a breadbasket of Central Mexican cuisine, it was memories of her that Callejas would later lean to and draw inspiration from during his time as an Air Force chef.
Upon deciding to enlist in the U.S. Air Force, though, it was heating, ventilation and air conditioning that piqued Callejas’s interest instead of cooking.
“When I was growing up, I loved disassembling televisions, radios, small stuff,” said Callejas. “To this day, I enjoy deconstructing things, fixing them and putting them back together, so I felt like being an HVAC technician would play well into that strength.”
It wasn’t until Callejas had spent a full year in the delayed entry program, a sort of Airman “bullpen” in which aspiring recruits can wait for openings in their preferred job field, that his patience grew thin.
Heeding his recruiter’s advice, Callejas was allowed to enlist in exchange for letting the Air Force pick his job for him. That job ended up being a food service shift worker.
“That news was honestly pretty devastating,” he said. “Getting a job cooking food felt as though I was taking a step backwards. It was during that early time in my career that I began making a series of bad decisions—picking up bad habits. I was alone at the time, so I didn’t have anyone to really level me out or offer me pushback on some of my worse ideas.”
Callejas’s bad habits would continue to hinder his professional life until one fateful incident that left him with an important decision to make.
“One day, I ended up making a mistake big enough to land me in my commander’s office,” he said. “It was essentially a sink or swim moment. He sat me down and basically told me that I’d be kicked out if I didn’t make a 180 degree improvement. It was a wake-up call.”
In that instance, it’s always a question of whether to let this thing destroy you or use it as fuel—as a reason—to keep going and to persevere, he said.
So Callejas persevered.
Though his grandmother from Puebla had since passed, Callejas drew from her memory a purpose and inspiration that he knew would drive him to make good on the second chance his commander granted him.
It was with that new and impassioned outlook on his work that Callejas quickly set himself apart from the other Airmen in his unit, attracting the attention of his leadership including Maynard Oestreich, Travis’ executive chef.
Oestreich instantly felt in Callejas what often eluded other food service Airmen: genuine passion and the skill to make shape of it.
“If you want to talk about innate talent, this is a guy whose palette can pick up on even the most subtle of nuanced flavor,” said Oestreich. “There are qualities that professional chefs might spend decades refining and acquiring that Callejas wields like a birthright.”
It was due to Oestreich’s enthusiastic endorsement of Callejas that the Travis DFAC team nominated Callejas for this year’s Hennessy Travelers Association Award of Excellence, an Air Force-wide award that represents the benchmark for professionalism and culinary skills within the career field.
“Being nominated for the award was unreal to me,” said Callejas. “It felt like the culmination of all the adversity I’ve overcome and all the effort I’ve brought into the kitchen.”
What was more unreal to him than being nominated for the award? Winning it.
“If you would’ve told me anyone else but Callejas had won the award, I’d have been floored,” said Oestreich. “As humble as he is, he could start at a three-star Michelin restaurant tomorrow and be fine. Never have I seen someone who realizes what they want and so methodically and busily works to accomplish or obtain what that is.”
Though Callejas is objectively deserving of the praise being heaped on him, it’s still with a measured and humbled perspective that he takes pride in it. And although the trophy is nice, it’s not the thought of it that makes him smile, he said.
“I’m not really the type to accept praise easily,” he said. “I just hope people enjoy the food I cook for them. I hope it brightens their day—gives them something to look forward to, even. I feel that I didn’t fully appreciate my grandmother’s cooking when I was younger, and it feels nice to feel as though I’m bringing her back with my own cooking. Even if other people don’t know who she is, they still get to meet her by tasting the food I cook, and that’s something that I hope never goes away—That feeling of family and of belonging; of the way good food can make us feel at home.”