The Art of Military Culinary Arts Competitions

U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team - Erfurt , Germany

On an early October 2016 morning in Erfurt Germany, the third day of competition of the 2016 Culinary Olympics, military chefs from the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team (USACAT) staged themselves outside of their kitchen and awaited a brief from the lead judge. This morning was the culmination of 18 months of training above and beyond their primary jobs with the Department of Defense. The entire 14-member USACAT team woke early that October morning to ensure they were ahead of the thousands of other competitors in the show hall. They finished preparing for this event just before midnight, an exhausting 18-hour evolution of cooking. This event was the final push; seven hours of a near sprint, preparing and serving a full meal for 150 diners in a kitchen resembling an aquarium with hundreds of spectators and five highly-critical judges looking on. They had high expectations, especially after earning four gold medals in their initial event, the Regional Cold Food Table. That first event required the team to work 44 of 48 hours only two days prior to the hot food kitchen. Why would these people volunteer to have their products critiqued by some of the world's best chefs during multiple training events, dedicate countless hours after work on refining their dishes, and push themselves to their physical and mental limits in the process? For The USACAT, that is easy to answer. They wanted to be as good as they possibly can be in their chosen craft. The USACAT has possessed a drive for the mastery of cooking since its inception more than 40 years ago. The mission of the team is to promote growth in the culinary profession, raise the standards of culinary excellence and professionalism in Army food service, and improve home-station food service. That same drive for the mastery of cooking and culinary professionalism is once again on display this week during the 42nd Annual Military Culinary Arts Competition and Training Event, held at Fort Lee, Virginia. The annual event is the largest American Culinary Federation sanctioned competition in North America which showcases the talents of military chefs from all services and foreign military teams. These high-profile competitions have a unique influence on readiness with its position at the pinnacle of a military occupational specialty that effects Soldiers three times a day, every day of the year. In doing so, the team has competed in more than a dozen international culinary competitions, and earned several world military team titles and more than a hundred team and individual medals. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the team dominated international competition among military teams and was the envy of many foreign national teams. As a young private first class, I regarded the USACAT chefs as the best in our field. I got to know a number of senior noncommissioned officers and warrant officers who had worked in a variety of assignments ranging from Operations Just Cause and Desert Storm to the chief of staff's private quarters and the pentagon. I aspired to learn from these accomplished chefs and after a brief and humbling experience as an apprentice member earned a spot as a primary competitor on the 2006 World Cup team. That experience truly helped me grow into a confident and capable Soldier and culinarian and I am immensely grateful for what I learned about being a professional while serving on the team. At that time, our premier event was a three-course meal prepared off a German military field kitchen (comparable to a mobile kitchen trailer) and plated individually, restaurant style. Aside from the German field kitchen, the event did hold much in common with Army food service. Only a small number of Army culinary specialists plate restaurant style and that never happens off of a field kitchen. While I knew that the skills and experience that I gained on the team had very applicable relevance to my job, I also knew that more could be done to further that relevance. I often heard my seniors and peers in Army food service express that while what I had participated in was praiseworthy it had no place in the dining facility. "Oh, you're a culinary artist?" was a typical rhetorical question from my senior noncommissioned officers, and it implied that the 'artistry' was of little value to them. The reality of military food service is that the environment and conditions in which meals may be prepared are fluid and difficult to predict. Thus, if a Soldier can prepare a gold medal meal off of a German field kitchen then he/she could make a good meal just about anywhere. I hoped for the opportunity to help connect what the team did with daily feeding in the Army. Ten years later, I was fortunate to be selected to lead the USACAT at the Culinary Olympics. In preparation for the 2016 Culinary Olympics, we were made aware of the potential to compete in an entirely new hot food category known as the community catering event. This event very closely resembles a standard dining facility meal service offering two proteins, two starches, two vegetables, a vegetarian entrée, soup, salad bar, and a desert for 150 diners with a cafeteria/buffet style service. Remembering my experiences with the team in 2006 it became quickly evident that this competition is more suited for demonstrating what the best cooks in the military can offer on the world stage. The team developed their own menu during training events and designed it to showcase typical Army dining facility menu items with an appropriate seasonal theme for October. Items such as turkey breast, sweet potatoes, stewed southern greens and roasted root vegetables formed a foundation for the team to use their expertise and cooking skill to finish into a genuinely world class menu. All of the menu items developed and executed by this team can be prepared in a standard dining facility. In fact, the judges were furnished with a food cost spreadsheet that showed that the meal was purchased at a per diner cost within the basic daily food allowance for U.S. forces in Europe. Today's USACAT is composed of the same quality of chef that I admired when seeking out a position on the team. There are still team members that work for the most senior leaders of the military and in operational deployable units. All have experienced the standard fare of daily Army food and have felt underwhelmed in the preparation of these meals. As such, it was natural for them to take these products and develop them into a meal that some of the world's best chefs would appreciate. That may have been the easiest part. The more difficult task lies incorporating such meals into daily operations. Others in Army food service can be shown that these cooking techniques aren't just 'culinary art' but belong in their facilities. Dining facilities across the force are challenged to demonstrate appropriate levels of utilization as the Army looks at a variety of new ways to implement food service modernization. Images of the team's Culinary Olympic meal showcased to culinary specialists across the Army can help change the mindset that this advanced level of cooking does not fit into a dining facility's serving line. Back at the Culinary Olympic Show Hall the same day, drained from a seven-hour cooking marathon and the team's hot food kitchen chefs listened attentively to their judge's critique. To paraphrase the lead judge, rarely had he seen a team of chefs work together with such discipline, order, and focused coordination. The USACAT's result in the community catering event of the Culinary Olympics was a team bronze medal. Always seeking perfection, the team graciously accepted their medals at the awards ceremony and later that evening discussed what to do better next time. If given the opportunity to participate in the 2018 World Cup after having learned many valuable lessons in 2016, it is not difficult to see the Army competing once again for a World Championship. This time against both military and civilian teams. The USACAT strives to be world champions, but it also strives to make sure Soldiers eat world class meals every day, raise troop morale, and enhance unit readiness. The Soldiers' successes don't just show the world how good our food service Soldiers are, they show all of our culinary specialists how good they can be. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jesse D. Ward is the chief of the Advanced Culinary Training Division at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence.

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