News: Army cooks carve food sculptures for troops in Iraq
Spc. Derek Del Rosario
Task Force Baghdad PAO
CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq --This Thanksgiving, Task Force Baghdad Soldiers dining at the Rock of the Marne Sports Oasis can expect to see a 3-foot-tall turkey.
While the turkey won't be edible, it will surely catch the eyes of the Soldiers enjoying their holiday meal at this military camp on the outskirts of Baghdad.
The food sculpture of a large turkey, along with many other large sculptures such as Native Americans and cornucopias, will be featured at the Thanksgiving feast. These, along with many of the other carved-food creations featured in the dining facility throughout the year, are the works of civilian contractors and Soldiers of the Fort Stewart culinary arts team who are now showcasing their talents here at Camp Liberty.
Sgt. Onica P. Branche, Headquarters and Headquarters Support Company, said making food appealing to the eye is the team's goal.
"We ensure the quality of the food, but we are also the ones who enhance the food," she noted. "Basically, we make it look good,"
One of the more experienced team members is Sgt. 1st Class Preston Lee Slayton, HHSC platoon leader. With 22 years of culinary art experience behind him, Slayton splits his time between his platoon duties and his job in the kitchen. For him, overseeing ammunition, fuel and trucks is a world apart from building food sculptures.
"It's a big difference. They are two totally different worlds. Here in the kitchen, I get to really showcase my artistic skills," Slayton said. "I've had six years of art in school, so it comes natural to me. If I can picture it, I can draw it with icing."
Slayton is certified by the Culinary Federation Campaign, which testifies to his proficiency and allows him to teach culinary artistry to others. He was also Fort Stewart's Chef of the Year in 2004.
Slayton had a hand in helping to prepare the 3-foot-tall chocolate sculpture of the 3rd Infantry Division's mascot, Rocky the bulldog. The massive brown watchdog has been the centerpiece of the Camp Liberty dining facility since the beginning of the division's deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom 3 earlier this year.
Slayton's crowning achievement, however, was a 5-foot-long bread sculpture of the White House, a three-month project that earned him a gold medal in the Army's Culinary Arts Competition at Fort Lee in 1992.
Spc. Jarrod Marshall, HHSC and another culinary arts team member, often relies on the expertise that Slayton has to offer. Marshall sees Slayton as a mentor who has a lot to offer in the culinary arts field. Slayton's guidance helped Marshall win a first-place finish at the Fort Stewart 2004 Culinary Arts Show for his ice sculpture of a 2-foot-tall globe.
"This work takes a lot of patience. (Slayton) has taught me a lot, he knows what he's doing," Marshall said. "He has really helped me develop my skills, whether it is preparing icing or making dough from scratch."
Marshall is not the only one who has been recognized for his work while under Slayton's tutelage. Branche received two medals during the culinary arts show for her presentation of small, layered cakes known as petit fours. "I learned everything I know from Sgt. 1st Class Slayton," she said.
Slayton's interest in cooking started at a young age, much like the other members of the team. Growing up, the duty of cooking the family meal rotated between him and his siblings. His interest peaked when he took home economics in high school.
Now as a cook in the Army, he is feeding a new crowd but still remains grounded to the family dynamic he grew up with.
"(My family) is the reason I do this job," he said. "Their security is very important to me. They have given me the support, and I couldn't do it without them."
In addition to the initial training each food service specialist goes through soon after entering the Army, members of the culinary arts team completed a month-long class on advanced cooking and food decoration. Being part of the team is something Branche said she started to enjoy once she began training and getting hands-on experience. She has a great passion for her job, something she feels is essential for members of the team.
"Being able to put out something that looks good is the most gratifying part of the job," Branche said. "This job has shown me that no matter how hard a job or project might be, you have to be dedicated and put time into it. If you put your mind to it, it can be done."