FORT LEE, Va., - Three gourmet chefs from the 841st Engineer Battalion collectively earned nine medals while competing against more than 200 other military chefs in the Army’s 35th Culinary Arts Competition at Fort Lee, Va., March 2010. In the process they helped the Army Reserve finish in the top five out of 24 teams. Besides their accomplishments in the contest, these Reservists each have something else in common. They were meddling in the kitchen long before they were medaling at the contest.
Sgt. Patrick Alverenga says his earliest culinary experience, which was far from award winning, took place in his family kitchen when he was 12. One day his mom had started cooking a pot of brown stew chicken for dinner, and she asked him to turn the stove off once he knew that the food was cooked. Such a task may seem beyond the abilities of a 12 year old, but Alveranga says he’s a product of Caribbean culture in which young men are required to be self sufficient at an early age.
Though he assumed responsibility of the family dinner, Alveranga’s mind was elsewhere.
“I was trying to go out and play with my boys,” Alveranga said. “She kept saying, ‘are you watching the stove?’ and I’d say yes mummy, but I wasn’t.”
Alverenga’s negligence caused the chicken to burn, because he did not turn the stove off in time.
His mom was upset, but she was determined to make sure her family had dinner that night, and at the same time teach her son a lesson in diligence.
“She said, ‘you have to buy back this chicken, and cook it before your dad gets home,’” Alveranga said. “There went my piggy bank; I was saving up for Christmas to get something good.”
He bought the chicken at the neighborhood grocery store, took it home, and then cooked it with no help from his mom.
“I always watched what she did while she cooked,” Alverenga said. “I had to remember everything she did, so it forced me to pay attention.”
His dad came home and the family sat down to dinner, but in the midst of his disappointment, and at such an early stage of his life, Alverenga didn’t realize that he had started on his career path. He was an adult when a relative, who enjoyed his cooking, suggested that Alverenga pursue a career in the food industry.
Now at 33, he’s a graduate of the Robert Morgan Vocational Technical Institute, with a degree in Commercial Foods and Culinary Arts.
During the Army culinary competition he earned a silver medal in the Field Kitchen category, where as a member of the Army Reserve team, he helped prepare a three course meal for 60 people using equipment from an Army field kitchen. He also won a bronze medal for preparing a five course meal in the Cold Table Display category, and a second bronze for a Bone-In Veal Loin of Rack in the Practical Cooking category. A chartered member of the Army Reserve 2006 Culinary team, Alveranga said he is proud of the 2010 team.
“It’s almost to tears that I’m proud,” Alvarenga said. “The first year we were sucking air, we didn’t even know what we were getting into.”
In hindsight, he said the incident in his family kitchen was a practice opportunity that helped him get where he is today, and yes, his mom is proud his accomplishments.
Staff Sgt. Joseph Parker remembers trying to cook in his family kitchen when he was three years old. He was at home one day with his baby sitter while his mom was at work, but the baby sitter was pre-occupied and she didn’t realize that Parker was hungry.
He says, his memory of what happened next is vague because of how young he was, but he remembers pushing a chair to the front of the stove, climbing on top of the chair, and trying to cook some eggs that he had gotten from the refrigerator.
“I blew those eggs up all over the kitchen,” Parker said. “There was a big air pocket in the eggs, like there was too much heat. The bubble kept getting bigger and bigger, then I started hollering for my mom.”
The debacle occurred right around the time his mom normally came home from work. That day, she arrived on schedule, just in time for the mess that resulted from the eggs exploding.
The incident did not keep Parker’s mom from letting him and his siblings help her in the kitchen during his pre-teenage years.
“She’d let us mix the batter when she made crêpes or hot dog pancakes,” Parker said. “And we’d get to lick the spoon afterward, and the bowl.”
His dad taught him how to smoke and barbeque meat; skills Parker says are still part of his cooking style. Those same skills helped him get a job as the head of catering functions at a water park in Kissimmee, Fla., while he was a junior in high school. During his freshman year, at age 13, he got his first cooking job preparing side dishes like coleslaw and macaroni and cheese at a restaurant in St. Cloud, Fla.
“I also took culinary classes in high-school, and I worked at a few other fast food restaurants,” Parker said. “I always knew that I wanted to be a cook.”
After high school, he earned an associate degree in Culinary Arts, and a bachelor’s in Culinary Nutrition from Johnson Wales University in Rhode Island.
Now at age 28, Parker is the captain of the Army Reserve culinary team, and an original member, like Alverenga.
During the Army Culinary Arts Competition he scored a silver medal in the Nutrition Hot Food Challenge which tests a chef’s ability to prepare and present a meal created from a mystery basket. He got a second silver medal for preparing a lobster dish before a live audience. He also earned two bronze medals. The first bronze was for a Cold Poultry Platter and the second bronze when he tried out for the U.S. Army Culinary Team.
Parker is one of three Army Reservists selected to the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team. They're the first Reservists ever to make the team. All three will compete with other active duty chefs in Germany for the World Culinary Cup in October 2010.
Individual accolades aside, Parker says the dishes, and different techniques, that he and the other cooks learn at the competition help them exceed the Army standard when they cook for Soldiers back at their unit.
“Ask any of the Soldiers…how they eat when we go to the field,” Parker said. “It always says you can add to, but never take away from the recipe cards.”
Parker says the memory of his first cooking attempt is fresh in his mind because he has heard his mom tell the story many times over the years. However, the cause of the baby sitter’s inattentiveness at the time of the incident remains a mystery.
“I was cooking my eggs man, I was hungry that’s all I know,” Parker said.
Spc. Daniel Arshadnia was 8 years old when one day, in his mom’s absence, he decided to make chocolate and vanilla pretzel cookies using the recipe from a book.
This was his first time trying to cook, and his mom came home to what Arshadnia calls a huge mess.
“There was flour all over the counter top, my mom freaked out.” Arshadnia said. “She was upset, and she wouldn’t let me cook in the kitchen ever after that. Even like, when I was going to culinary school, she wouldn’t let me cook when I came home.”
Arshadnia is a 2008 graduate of New York’s Culinary Institute of America. The school thanked him in a letter for the attention the institution received when, as an alumnus, he was featured in media for winning a gold medal in the Culinary Arts Competition.
“How often do you get a letter from your school thanking you?” Arshadnia said. “They usually send letters asking for money.”
His gold medal was the Army Reserve teams’ first, for his Sautéed Airline Chicken Breast with Portobello Mushroom and Truffle Oil Risotto. He also won a silver medal in the Student Team Skills Competition, which tests young chefs’ basic culinary skills and ability to execute a four course menu.
During the time leading up to the competition, Arshadnia was at a point in his life where he no longer wanted to be a culinary artist. He had worked in the culinary field as a civilian, and he lost his job eight days before getting union holdings. He was still new to the Miami area, having moved there May 7, 2009, and he hardly knew anyone.
“It made me feel different about my field,” Arshadnia said. “I can be worked to death with little to show, and no appreciation for what I’d done, and they just let you go.”
He said being a food service specialist in the 841st helped him rekindle his passion for cooking, and he credits Staff Sgt. Parker for recruiting him onto the Army Reserve Culinary team.
It took some “warming up” on Parker’s part, since Arshadnia “didn’t want to see another chef in the kitchen.”
“Even after we got to Fort Lee I hated it, I didn’t want to be there, but once I finished my first dish I knew I was coming back next year,” Arshadnia said. “I’ve learned so many different culinary techniques…and I’ve learned so many ways to perfect things that I’ve already been doing.”
If only he had learned those techniques before he attempted to make the pretzel cookies.
“My mom thought they were disgusting because they came out hard as a rock,” Arshadnia said. “I threw them out; I think my dog got a hold of one of them.”