Navy vet Jason Carter brings Cajun flare to the Orlando Magic’s taste buds

Jason Carter doesn’t need a clipboard to help fuel an NBA team to a win. He wields a spatula instead. As the sous-chef for the Orlando Magic, Carter clutches kitchen tools, decades of cooking experience and a mean gumbo recipe to propel players, coaches and staff to success on the hardwood.

That’s why Carter, a 20-year Navy veteran, was recently honored as the Magic’s “Hometown Hero,” which recognizes military, fire, police and medical personnel for their contributions to the community.

Little did Carter know that the players he cooks for almost everyday would turn around on the court and present him with a personalized Orlando Magic jersey and two special coins to honor his years of service in the military. Couple that with a standing ovation from an Amway Center crowd, and it was an evening Carter will never forget.

“I knew of the ‘Hometown Hero,’ and it was our chef who said ‘we want to honor you with the award,'” Carter explained. “I was a little reluctant at first because I didn’t want the spotlight on me, but when the team came up from behind me on the court, and told me they appreciate what I’ve done, that was such a special moment for me.”

 

 

Not only that, but Carter was able to actually watch the Magic play from a courtside seat rather than simply eyeing the game clock from the arena’s kitchen.

“I tell people I have a season ticket to all the home games, but I never get to watch them because while the game is going on, I’m still working,” Carter said. “I only look at the television screens to see how much time I have to prepare snacks for halftime, and get the post-game meal ready.”

A Magic Touch On The Stove

Carter grew up in Pearl River, Louisiana, a small town located just north of New Orleans. The youngest of nine children, he got his start in cooking early in life thanks to picking up the slack in a busy household.

Photo c/o Jason Carter

“My mom would be out at the store or something like that, and she would look at me and say ‘I’ve got the pots on the stove. Don’t let them burn.’ Then at one point, she had to have cataract surgery on her eyes, and she told me to ‘go at it,’ so I’ve been doing it ever since,” Carter said. “I started cooking a lot of the same things she was cooking. I must have learned quickly because none of my brothers and sisters went hungry.”

As his aptitude in the kitchen grew, so did his recipe book. He experimented with new ingredients and unfamiliar recipes, and then took those skills to the Navy.

“I didn’t realize I wanted to serve in the military until my senior year of high school. I told one of my friends I wanted to join the Army and then go work at the White House,” Carter recalled. “I wound up joining the Navy, and was the first one out of my immediate family to join that branch of the military. I didn’t make it to the White House, but I did get interviewed for Camp David.”

During his two-decade long military career, Carter worked everywhere from Japan, to China, to Korea, to Guam. He cooked in officers’ barracks and also manned the stoves on the USS Reclaimer and the USS Decatur.

He left the military in 2002 as a Mess Management Specialist Second Class and then began working at a Marriott by Orlando International Airport for 10 years. From there, he moved to Amway, where he worked the Magic Grill at the Amway Center and also picked up a second job at a nearby hotel.

“I was working both jobs, and also interviewing for another job when the chef here at Amway told me he was looking for some help,” Carter said. “That’s how I got here with the Magic two years ago.”

Carter during a reenlistment ceremony. Photo c/o Jason Carter

Smooth Sailing On Gameday

Carter’s duties while cooking in the military helped prepare him for dishing up four full meals on gamedays.

When the Magic have a home game, Carter typically arrives at the arena by 6:30 a.m. to help prepare breakfast. Players come in around 8 a.m. for shootaround, meetings and to receive treatment. Breakfast service ends by 10:30 a.m. which is when Carter kicks it into high gear for cleanup and lunch service.  Lunch runs from 11:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m, and then a pregame meal of pasta and lean meats is served up until tip-off.

Once the 48 minutes are underway, Carter arranges fresh fruit cups and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the locker room for halftime all while getting the post-game meal fired up.

“Here with the athletes, you have to make sure that if they’re gluten free or allergic to something, you’re cooking according to their needs,” Carter said. “If they need something, you provide it for them. They all come in at different times throughout the day compared to the military where each meal was served during a strict one-hour window.”

It ends up being about a 16-hour day for Carter, but it’s all worth it, he says.

“Cooking for service members, you could cook for anywhere from 100 people up to an aircraft carrier which has 5,000 people on it,” he said. “Because I’m cooking for the team now, which is a much smaller group, I enjoy it because I get to see the grin on their faces, knowing I’m providing something for them and it’s going to be healthy. In the military, you’ve got to get the food in, get it out, and move on to the next meal.”

Photo c/o Jason Carter

With this position allowing Carter to tap into more of a home-cooking style, he’s been able to add some personal touches to team meals as well.

“About two or three times a year, I make gumbo and collard greens, and really get into that Cajun-style of cooking,” he said. “Everyone from the analytics department to the training department, they all come down for that. It goes over real well. I guess you could say I’ve come a long way from my mother giving me instructions to not let the pots burn on the stove.”

For all of that, the Magic are eternally grateful. And, so is the rest of the country.

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