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When Staff Sgt. James Veylupek left his full-time post with the Utah National Guard to start a food truck, he didn't abandon the Army, he brought it along for the ride.

The 39-year-old cook and veteran from Pleasant Grove launched Special Courses, a military-themed food truck that specializes in hamburgers with gourmet toppings.

Serious about food — but with a fun-loving personality — Veylupek spent months creating his combat-approved menu. Among the burgers he sells are the Hell Fire, with chipotle slaw, sriracha and jalapeños; and the Zero Dark Thirty, with two fried eggs over easy. His signature offering is the Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot, with cheddar, bacon and onions caramelized in Jack Daniel's Whiskey.

In addition to burgers, he offers Semper Fries. "They are off the chart," says customer Kiley Eslinger. Served straight from the fryer, they are "crispy on the outside, tender on the inside."

All the burgers are seasoned with Veylupek's original Camp Williams Steak Seasoning, a recipe honed while working as a full-time cook for the 19th Special Forces Group at Camp Williams in Draper. (Now he just does weekend duty.)

The married father of three daughters served in the Utah National Guard for 12 years, including a deployment to Iraq. Time spent in a remote area of the Middle East got him thinking about his future beyond the military. "One of the things I wanted to do was start a food truck," he said.

In 2014, he purchased a used van and retrofitted it with a kitchen. He painted it red and hung an American flag, making it easy to spot.

Veylupek's wife, Melinda, and his their oldest daughter, Katie, help with the business by taking orders and plating food. While the military theme helps the truck stand out, "it has special meaning for us," said Melinda. "It makes the work meaningful."

Special Courses soon will transition from food truck to restaurant, as Veylupek was the winner of Taste for the Space, a culinary contest that earned him $50,000 and six months free rent at The Shops at South Town (formerly South Towne Center).

Veylupek competed against 12 other chefs for the honor, including several established restaurants, such as Tin Angel Cafe, Yoshi's Japanese Grill and fellow food-truck operator CupBop Korean BBQ. For the challenge, chefs prepared their signature dish and the public voted for their favorite. There also was a panel of culinary judges that helped determine the winner.

Heather Nash, the marketing and business development director for the Sandy mall, said the judges were impressed by Veylupek's food, his ability to serve a crowd and his military service.

"We were looking for something unique for our dining terrace," she said. "I don't think we could have found James any other way."

The mall will spend several months creating a space to accommodate Special Courses' kitchen needs to ensure its future success. "He gets six months free rent, but we want him to be here longer," Nash said, noting that the restaurant should open in late summer in time for back-to-school and holiday shopping.

After the Sandy restaurant opens, Veylupek said he will continue to use the food truck for catering and special events.

Veylupek, who was a full-time National Guard cook for four years, was used to cooking for a crowd of anywhere from 20 to 1,000 people a day, said his former supervisor Sgt. First Class Bryan Udy.

"And he was always striving to find something more complex to make," Udy said. "He loves to cook and loves to experiment. Normally in the military, cooks aren't asking [their boss] to buy asparagus."

Udy said Veylupek also "loves to joke and have a good time." When fellow soldiers left their hats unattended, they could almost always find them in the blast chiller — pranked by Veylupek.