News: Flying Denali Inn, ‘Where’s the beef?’
Story by Spc. Reese Von Rogatsz
GHAZI AVIATION BASE, Pakistan – With a colorful name derived from the Task Force it feeds, this serviceable and unpretentious eatery packs in a battalion-sized clientele twice daily.
The popularity is at first difficult to explain given that it serves breathtakingly predictable fare. The key to success, it seems, is once again location, location, location.
"When we came here, we thought we would provide sustenance for the 300 soldiers performing the mission,” said Spc. David Wendland, food service specialist, Echo company, 1-52 General Support Aviation Battalion, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade. “But when we touched ground, the Pakistanis obviously wanted to take care of us. They provided us with their own catering service.”
What do you get when you cross a South Asian catering service with the ‘Army cook’s bible’, Technical Bulletin number MED 530?
A carnivore’s delight, where one can sink his teeth into succulent meat-based dishes such as...rice. Thereby begging the question, "O beef, where art thou?"
Sadly, the manner in which livestock is slaughtered and butchered for local consumption does not meet with our native food safety standards.
And so, the dinner menu is limited to chicken and fish, or fish and … chicken. Sometimes shrimp and ... chicken.
One or the other is usually ‘sweet and sour’ or else drowned in an imitation of a fancy, big-city cream sauce.
“We’re trying to work with the chefs to integrate more variety into the meals,” said Wendland. “The provision manager goes out every day to get fresh vegetables, fresh ingredients to use.”
Spc. Michael Reid, an Echo company food service specialist who helped open a number of successful restaurants as a consultant prior to enlisting, points out that the language barrier often creates communication problems at the most basic level - occasionally, with amusing results.
“We wanted to do biscuits and gravy, and they showed up with cookies while we made the gravy,” Reid said.
The confusion resulted from the difference in the meaning of ‘biscuit’ between North American and Commonwealth English, the latter being an influence of British colonial rule here.
According to Staff Sgt. Tracy Machuca, Echo company’s senior food service operation sergeant, the main challenge initially confronting the team was sanitation.
Enter the Army’s version of ‘Meals on Wheels’, the Containerized Kitchen, a self-sufficient modern marvel of a contraption made to feed 800 up to three times daily.
“At first, when we brought the CK out here, [the Pakistanis] didn’t want to work with it,” said Wendland. “It was like space-age technology. Their way of doing things is simple, natural.”
Indeed, one of the locals promptly demonstrated his own simple, natural and unique solution to encountering mechanical difficulties - as related by Spc. Daniel Yang, an Echo company water treatment specialist in charge of a dish wash station manned by the contractors.
Having asked a worker, "John," to flush the used water from the station - normally accomplished by opening a valve, Yang momentarily stepped away. Upon return he saw John gesturing and muttering to himself, struggling with the tap.
They tried turning it together but it wouldn’t budge.
“So John grabs a rock and starts banging on the knob,” said Yang, a smile on his face. And it did turn slightly, in fact, resulting in a trickle. Frustrated, John threw the rock down, ran a few steps and … picked up a brick, eagerly looking back for permission.
No dish wash station was harmed in the re-telling of this episode.
“What I like about working with the Pakistanis is that they’re receptive and listen to what we have to say,” Machuca said. “They’ve made many improvements. They ask us questions, we ask them questions - and we work together well as a team.”
“They’ve gone out of their way to make things better for us,” said Reid.
At the encouragement of food services personnel, the caterers have changed their cooking style to appeal to American tastes and expectations with regard to seasoning, preparation and presentation. The spices are now to a greater extent downplayed salt and pepper, rather than in-your-face curry and ginger.
Now and again, a taste of local culinary arts finds its way to the table. Such as traditional variants of South Asian ‘kheer’ - sweet, milky desserts with fruit, nuts, rice or noodles.
The unit has also seen some unusual salads; not ‘unusual’ in a deep-fried-salad sort of way, but rather in being made from vegetables mixed with fruit: peas, carrots, corn, pineapple, peach.
“The food is safe and I feel like the soldiers can eat a healthy meal, a nutritious meal,” said Machuca, speaking from 17 years’ experience. Her basic principle for the operation: everyone gets a fair share of the food, from the first soldier in, to the last.
No team would be complete without a mascot. Somewhere along the way, ‘Oreo’ appeared. Timid at first, the dog was so named on account of her coat’s color and pattern. As time went on, she proved her worth by diligently guarding territory and chasing off pesky birds, rodents and of course, cats.
“I guess that’s our little mascot, she keeps hanging around,” said Yang. He mentions that Oreo knows their routine and regularly meets them at the airfield for scheduled physical training:
“She’ll run with us for a while and then start nipping at my leg. It’s kinda painful, so that’s when I start running a little faster and the dog gives up.”
How do you feel about the unit’s mission, Yang?
“I think we’re doing good work here and as the years go by, I’ll think back on it and be glad I did it, glad I had the experience.”
Reid, if you could add an item to your wish list, what would it be?