Adventures ’n cooking: Daniel Haff moves from battlefield to the kitchen

Daniel Haff’s love of adventure has taken him all over the world, but now he’s looking to put down some roots in the Magic City.

Born in Grand Rapids, Mich., Haff went to school in the small town of Cedar Springs, just north of Grand Rapids.

“I had a normal childhood, loved being outdoors and fishing and going camping and things like that,” Haff said.

In addition to the outdoors, Haff also enjoyed cooking, and started working in restaurants at 14 as a dishwasher. By the time he was 20, Haff had slowly worked his way up through better and better restaurants. Around 1999 he received an invitation to spend the summer in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York with a friend who had grown up there.

A culinary school, Paul Smith’s College, happened to be in that area. The college owns a restaurant and hotel called Hotel Saranac, where all the culinary students intern.

“In the summertime, the culinary students take off to go back home, but they still need help, so I got to work in a kitchen for six months as a paid employee to learn under the best sous chefs and executive chefs that they had to offer. So I learned a lot from that,” Haff said. “And I moved back to Michigan and worked at a nice fine dining restaurant.”

In the spring and summer of 2000 Haff started to get bored with his life.

“I had wanderlust,” Haff said. “I wanted to go and do some different things, and I joined the Army. From June 2000 until March of 2008, I was an infantry soldier. I did three tours overseas.”

His first tour was in Korea, which he was thrilled with because of all the unique foods he had never tasted before.

“It was fantastic,” Haff said. “I got to try all these different foods.”

His second tour in 2002 brought him to Kuwait, which exposed him to Mediterranean cuisine.

After that tour he became a recruiter in the Detroit area, which has a very mixed population and offered yet more new tastes for Haff to sample.

“So again, there was food everywhere, from cevapi sausages, which is Bosnian, to going downtown to Dearborn, where they have the biggest Middle Eastern population outside of the Middle East,” Haff said. “I’d get falafel and couscous and schawarma and tons of different Mediterranean foods.”

In 2006 he went to Afghanistan and served as an infantry squad leader. Six months into that tour, Haff, who was a sergeant, was shot during an ambush.

“I was the guy in charge and I was the only one with an antenna sticking off of my vest, so…” Haff said. “They’re not stupid. They figured they’d better take me out.”

His unit was one of the first to go into a highly-contested area in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. They were in Korengal Valley, which was a prosperous area because of the huge cedar forests in the mountains.

“When you’re up there, it’s not a desert. It’s highly-forested stuff,” Haff said. “It looks like maybe the mountains of Washington or in Colorado when you’re up in those big, thick pine and cedar forests.”

The insurgents would cut down the timber and sell it illegally, making a huge profit that was used to funnel weapons and other material into the valley.

“We had been on overwatch. There was only one road in and out of the valley, and to call it a road is to be generous. It’s basically a two-track (path), and we’re surrounded on all sides by 10,000-foot peaks,” Haff said. “We were only about 20 kilometers or so from the Pakistani border, so it’s a real hot zone.”

“At one point we were fighting Chechens and Egyptians,” Haff added. “Different people would come there to fight for different stuff, different areas in the Muslim world.”

As an infantry squad leader, Haff generally led between 10 and 15 men out on patrols. They had been running low on supplies, which could only be dropped in by a C-130 cargo plane because the area was so remote.

“It’s old school. We had a C-130 that would fly over us and kick out a pallet on a parachute. Things like that really hadn’t been done since Vietnam,” Haff said. “We had Claymore mines strung out and it was a hell of a fight.”

A platoon comprised of three squads was operating out of a stronghold about half a kilometer from the overwatch position used to watch the road.

Haff still remembers waking up that morning – Aug. 21, 2006.

“It was probably 10 or 11 in the morning – beautiful day, sunny, mid-70s, puffy clouds,” he said.

Haff was leading his own squad out to relieve the squad on overwatch that morning. His squad started climbing up the side of the cliff to get to the path leading to the overwatch position when one of Haff’s men realized he had forgotten something. Haff sent the man back to the stronghold for the forgotten item and sent the rest of the squad ahead, leaving himself alone.

“So I was standing right there out in the open, and then of course I had the antenna sticking off of me, and then just bam – three-sided ambush,” Haff said. “They opened up all at once – machine guns, rifles going off.”

Haff yelled at his men to find cover and raised his rifle to return fire. He was wearing only a T-shirt underneath his body armor, and was immediately shot in the arm.

“It felt like somebody just whack, cracked me in the back of the arm with a cane or a broomstick. It kind of made that same noise and felt like it,” Haff said. “And I saw this little bit of spray of blood and stuff.”

Haff remembered thinking to himself that he had just been shot, and was a little dumbfounded at first. The next thing Haff remembers was falling down the cliff. At first he thought the shot he had taken was powerful enough to knock him over. That hadn’t been the case, however.

“I found out later, I guess, right when they opened up with machine guns, they also fired RPGs – rocket-propelled grenades – and one blew up several feet away from me and probably helped knock me off the cliff,” Haff said.

It was a 30-foot drop to the bottom of the cliff, and Haff landed on his back. He was dazed and confused, exposed in a position with no cover, with the enemy continuing to shoot at him. Still trying to shake off the effects of his gunshot wound, Haff did the only thing he could think of – play dead.

“So I just stopped moving, and I laid there and acted like I was dead. And it worked,” Haff said with a laugh. “Even in the middle of the firefight, I chuckled to myself again, just incredulous that I can’t believe this … worked.”

Haff took a few deep breaths, thinking to himself that he was not going out like this. There were still plenty of things he wanted to do, and his men were still out there fighting for their lives.

“So I reached up slowly with my good hand and undid my rucksack straps, took a few deep breaths, and then used the last of my strength,” Haff said. “I jumped and ran out from the open area that I was laying in and got behind some rocks.”

Haff’s radio was broken so he couldn’t talk to anyone in his squad, and he couldn’t see them, either. He could see the enemy, though. Before firing back, Haff checked his arm. Although he was bleeding quite a bit, Haff decided he didn’t need a tourniquet.

“I didn’t hit an artery,” Haff said. “I could tell just by looking at it because I’d had a lot of combat trauma training.”

As Haff looked into the hole in his arm, he could see bone and his artery. Haff said it was surreal to watch the blood pumping through the artery, but it at least confirmed to him the artery wasn’t hit and he wasn’t in danger of bleeding out quickly.

“And then I got so damn mad and I started screaming curse words and fired off about two or three magazines,” Haff said. “I’m still kind of shell shocked from (what) just happened and I’m like, ‘Well, if I’m by myself and I don’t know where anybody is, I probably shouldn’t go through all my ammo.'”

Haff could hear his men returning fire higher up on the mountain, and he could see where the enemy was, so he decided to leave his position to find a working radio in order to call in an artillery strike.

He made his way back down to the platoon command post and reported on the situation to his lieutenant, who had already called in a mortar strike.

“So right when I got into the command post the mortars started landing and blowing up amongst the enemy area. And I sat down, lit a cigarette and told the doc to give me morphine,” Haff said. “About an hour and a half later, the last thing I remember is a Black Hawk helicopter hovering above the side of the mountain.”

A combat medic dropped down on a line from the Black Hawk and waved Haff over. Haff was still feeling the effects of the morphine, had lost a lot of blood and could barely walk.

“So I started coming up to him and he’s like, ‘Just give me a hug!'” Haff said with a laugh. “So I just gave him a big hug and then he strapped a D-ring on me, a carabiner, to hold me and I slowly was being lifted up into the helicopter.

“And I’m slowly kind of looking around, and again, it was just strangely beautiful,” Haff said. “I’m looking around at this beautiful view in a crazy part of the Hindu Kush Mountains and that was the last I saw of Afghanistan.”

For the wounds he received in action that day, Haff was awarded the Purple Heart. Haff received 13 medals during his time in the Army, including three Army Commendation Medals, four Army Achievement Medals, Two Good Conduct Medals, a Combat Infantry Badge, and an Expert Infantry Badge.

Because of his injuries, Haff could no longer serve in the field. The Army offered him a desk job or retirement, and he chose retirement.

Haff went through rehab and met his eventual wife in 2008 while in New York. She was from Berthold, but didn’t want to go back to North Dakota at that point, so she went with Haff to Michigan. Then the economy crashed, and Haff in turn followed his wife to North Dakota, where the economy was booming.

Haff had originally wanted to start his own small cafe in Minot, but then the opportunity to build Souris River Brewing with Aaron Thompson and Nick Holwegner presented itself and Haff jumped at it.

Located at 32-3rd St. NE, in between Firestone Tire and the Ice Box, Souris River Brewing is open on Monday, and Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. On Sunday it’s open from noon to 1 a.m. and is closed on Tuesday.

The regular menu is served from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. is a smaller, late-night menu.

Now the chef of his own kitchen, Haff describes the food he and his staff make as good, wholesome, healthy American food that is as locally sourced as possible.

“We do everything from top-end burgers and sandwiches to featured steaks and chicken entrees, saute dishes. We have a smoker, so we smoke meats. Also I’ve put a little bit of Mediterranean flair on some of the menu items because of my time spent in the Middle East. And that actually transfers really well to here because standard Mediterranean food is bread, beans, vegetables,” Haff said. “It’s a lot of the things that people grew up with in the Midwest, so that little bit different flavor makes it approachable. You can try something different while still sticking with that base thing.”

Haff credits being able to handle the challenge of starting his own business along with Thompson and Holwegner to his time in the Army and all the skills he learned there. Although he was injured and still suffers some effects from that gunshot wound to this day, Haff wouldn’t trade his time in the military for anything.

“The only reason that I had the courage to go through with this – and I haven’t been in a kitchen for 12 years – but the military experience of being a leader, of organization, of logistics, management, all of those things were easily transferable into the kitchen,” Haff said. “It made me very comfortable because the kitchen is an extremely high-stress environment. There’s a lot going on.”

Haff said being the chef of his own kitchen is surreal in a good way. Along with being fun and exciting, he calls leading the kitchen staff hard work that is extremely rewarding. Judging from the reception Minot has given Souris River Brewing so far, all that hard work is definitely appreciated.

“The response and support so far from everyone here in Minot has been absolutely overwhelming and outstanding. I’ve been almost brought to tears several times looking out over the full restaurant with everybody laughing and eating and having a good beer,” Haff said. “And I know I had a part to do with that.”