FORT LEE, Va. – The U.S. Army Reserve Culinary Arts Team began their quest for culinary supremacy against the dozens of other teams from the Army and the other armed services here Feb. 28.
The Army Reserve, which struggled to field a full team for this year’s competition, was the first to compete in the field kitchen team event, and earned a bronze medal for the event.
This competition features cooking skills well beyond what most soldiers may witness from their cooks at their Reserve Centers. Taste is important in the competition, but skills, procedures, timeliness, creativity, and presentation are also observed and graded. One thing is for certain, there’s no standard mashed potatoes and baked chicken being served here, and the cooks work hard to win.
“It is literally 24 hours of nonstop prepping for the competition, and it seemed like there’s still not enough time to prepare for everything,” said Staff Sgt. Elsie Fernandez, a native of Federal Way, Wash. “There are so many little details that you have to pay attention to.”
Fernandez, one of the five members of the field competition team, worked as a chef in a Japanese restaurant for two years after attending culinary school.
The field competition requires a themed, three-course meal to be cooked for 80 people in four hours. That time goes quickly, because nothing can be pre-cut or prepared for the service.
The Army Reserve team developed a southwest theme for their meal, which featured a sweet potato soup appetizer, a main course with pork roulade and chorizo with quinoa and corn spoon bread, and a dessert with a three layer cake, cinnamon ice cream, and raspberry and blackberry sauces. All this was preceded by a variety of salsas with chips at each table.
“We took the southwestern theme and just ran with it,” said Staff Sgt. Colby Beard, the field team captain and Brigham City, Utah, native.
The teams have the ability to use whatever ingredients they want in the competition, which gave some of the team members problems.
“Some of the ingredients on the menu, I have not worked with in the past. This is the first time I have ever met quinoa, which was in our menu.”
The other chief issues for the Army Reserve team came from their lack of familiarity with each other. While most of the active duty teams at the competition have the whole year to plan and practice, the Army Reserve team is cobbled together by whoever is available, and often at the last minute.
“We basically put the team together in the last 60 days. We were basically pulling people from every command we could get our hands on to get enough people with the passion for food to be able to compete,” said Beard.
The most time any of the five team members had worked together was five days. However, it was the teamwork that made their success possible.
“If you know how to cook and you know what you’re doing, I think that comes in secondary. For me, the most important thing is the dynamics between people,” said Fernandez.
While many look at the competition as a questionable expense, the team believes that it is important to have a standard bearer in military food service to emulate, much as West Point provides a standard for officers. And it is important for the Army Reserve to compete.
“This is a recruiting tool to show we are in the Army like everybody else. The programs and opportunities are there for reservists and soldiers as well,” said Beard.
The 37th Annual Military Culinary Arts Competition, which runs until March 10, is a yearly competition that features teams from all five of the Armed Forces and military teams from other countries in a series of team and individual events.