CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea – Twenty food-service soldiers from dining facilities all over Warrior Country were sent to Camp Red Cloud’s Commanding General’s Mess for two-and-a- half weeks of advanced culinary training to see if they had the skills to join the 2nd ID Culinary Team.
The team’s head chef, Staff Sgt. Geoffrey Blanchette, who cooks for the Division commanding general, took them back to the basics for three days, teaching them the fundamentals of sanitation, sautéing and proper temperature before kicking it up a notch for two more weeks.
“I was very happy with the soldiers the DFAC's sent me. They all had a love for culinary,” Blanchette said.
He added that drive and a desire for the art of cooking are more important ingredients than pure talent.
The competition for the eight remaining spots on the team culminated in a day-long three-course meal taste test. Division leaders and their spouses voted on their favorite dishes.
“I don’t even know how to describe it,” said Division Chief of Staff Col. Thomas Graves, after tasting one of the candidate’s dishes. “It’s wonderful.”
But, Blanchette says the flavor wasn’t quite there when the Soldiers first arrived at his kitchen.
“When we first started, I had each of them plate up a meal to see what they knew. Mostly, it was a hodge-podge of food just slopped down on the plate, with few flavors and the flavors they did have were way too salty. Nothing matched and the dishes weren’t nutritionally balanced.”
Blanchette’s team taught the competitors how to make a meal that is nutritiously balanced, pleasing to the eye and tasty. He wants all the soldiers, even the ones who don’t make it on the team to continue training with him when they can so they can take what they’ve learned back to their dining facilities.
“We want to raise the bar as far as Army food goes,” said Blanchette.
Not all the candidates were novices. Spc. Adam Herman, who cooks for 1st Battalion, 72nd Armor Regiment Crusader Restaurant on Camp Casey, says he’s been cooking for 16 years.
“It’s my love; it’s my passion,” he said. But, with a menu of soy-glazed salmon salad, duck and lobster poached dumplings and seared duck with plum sauce, he doesn’t think he’d have too many eager soldiers on the line asking for seconds. “They want their chili-mac and beef-braised noodles,” he added.
Blanchette says even those recipes can be turned into advanced cuisine.
“You can take a simple recipe and make it outstanding by changing the style of cooking. Start by using a hot pan then, add your oil, butter and then garlic. It’s how you cook it, not what you cook that makes a difference,” he said.
A major portion of any formal competition includes presentation.
“You eat with your eyes first,” said Blanchette.
So, he also had each soldier create display dishes which were judged on portion size, nutritional and esthetic balance and originality. Training - which he says - will go a long way when the Soldiers go back on the line.
“If you increase the presentation standards of the food you serve, it will improve the perception of the dining facility,” Blanchette added.
He said each of the competitors have learned a lot during the intensive cooking “boot camp.”
“They can go back to their DFAC's with true training – the ability to keep a soldier safe and healthy,” he said.
The winners will join the team when they compete in the Army-wide culinary competition at Fort Lee, Va., in March.