A Cooking Contest with a Military Twist

Sgt. James Wieting of the 267th Support Maintenance Company of the Nebraska National Guard checks the core temperature of a Salisbury steak on the fryer of the unit's mobile kitchen trailer Saturday, July 16, 2011. (FRANCIS GARDLER / Lincoln Journal Star)

By Mitch Smith | Lincoln Journal Star

Sgt. James Wieting of the 267th Support Maintenance Company of the Nebraska National Guard checks the core temperature of a Salisbury steak on the fryer of the unit's mobile kitchen trailer Saturday, July 16, 2011. (FRANCIS GARDLER / Lincoln Journal Star)

FORWARD OPERATING BASE HUSKER, rural Mead — In many ways, it was like any other cooking contest.

The chefs massaged their Salisbury steak patties, judges walked around with food thermometers clipped to their shirts and supervisors demanded that the wash water be cleaned.

Except this lunch was prepared by soldiers in a simulated battle setting.

With gunmen standing guard in nearby watchtowers, about 20 Nebraska Army National Guard soldiers worked to prepare a three-course meal similar to those they might serve if deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq.

With berms separating the base from nearby farmland and tents set up around the compound, soldiers said the training installation near Mead looked similar to outposts in which they serve overseas.

The meal was part of a nationwide competition to find the Army’s best food preparation unit. The 267th Support Maintenance Company won the statewide competition for the second time in three years.

Now, they’re competing against units from Louisiana, Missouri and Texas for the regional title, which the 267th won in 2009.

Chief Warrant Officer Tollie Yoder, the unit’s food service officer, said the military kitchen resembles a restaurant’s in many ways.

And contest judge Paul Gilmore said he was looking for more than a tasty steak. Gilmore evaluated the unit’s food, but also its sanitation, friendliness and efficiency.

Yoder’s company was assigned a 16-part menu that read more like a food list at a small-town diner than battlefield rations. Aside from the usual challenges of glazing carrots and roasting garlic potato wedges, soldiers contended with the cramped quarters of the mobile kitchen and the absence of a freezer.

They also check the water tank several times a day, detailing chlorine levels so soldiers stay hydrated and the water supply safe.

“The fastest way to take out a force is to mess with its water,” Yoder said.

Judges like Gilmore evaluate food at sites around the country, and will announce regional winners in the coming weeks.

Chilled food was stored in an ice chest, while five chefs worked in a small tent that was easily 30 degrees warmer than the already warm July heat outside. The entire operation took place under a tarp that blocks cell phone reception and makes the cooking site harder to spot from enemy aircraft.

Yoder’s unit last deployed in 2003, when it spent more than a year supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Exercises like Saturday’s help keep it prepared in case the call comes again.

“If you don’t get to train like this, you don’t until you’re actually over there,” he said.