FORT LEE – Today, the 36th annual U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition opens to the public.
“We got together two weeks ago and started practicing our menu,” said Marine Gunnery Sgt. William Allison. Allison was serving as team leader for Team Hawaii in the field cooking competition Wednesday and was the 2008 Armed Forces Chef of the Year.
On Wednesday, two teams got a head start on the field competition, which continues through March 9.
“This is a joint team and two weeks really isn’t typically how long you would practice for something like this,” said Allison. “But we’ve got soldiers and Marines and that’s all you really need.”
Team Hawaii’s menu for the field competition included a corn chowder, beef Wellington with a puree of red bliss potatoes and a hazelnut cake with white chocolate mousse for dessert.
Explaining the choice for the menu, Allison said that it was based on classical recipes that would be basic to prepare, but with complex twists.
Chief Warrant Officer David Longstaff, one of the judges for the event, said watching the event is awesome because the soldiers participating are trained to prepare meals for up to 800 sailors, soldiers or Marines out of the containerized kitchens, a type of mobile kitchen trailer often used in the field.
“We judge them on the use of the field equipment, what ingredients they use and how they use them,” Longstaff said. Even environmental conditions are taken into account. The post field house was slightly cool Wednesday morning, which created some challenges for one of the team Hawaii members working with chocolate. “It cooled very quickly. But those are like actual field conditions. You don’t always have constant electricity and we had some electrical issues this morning too.”
But even bigger than that is teamwork. “You’ve got to get five people to work together in a tight space,” Longstaff said.
From the judges perspective though, none of that matters.
“Once we start eating, we have to put that out of our head, that this meal was prepared on a field kitchen,” Longstaff said. Longstaff said a team’s meal must match what’s on their menu. “For example, Team Hawaii is preparing a corn chowder. It has to have the consistency and taste of a corn chowder. Every plate has to be perfect because they don’t know which one we’re going to grab.”
Chef Geoff Acott, a tasting judge for the event and a member of the World Association of Chefs Societies, said that the event is a great proving ground for chefs.
Acott recently served as a judge at the Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg in October 2010. The U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team competed in the event and took home several awards.
“This is a great practice for them,” Acott said. “Military chefs worldwide get fired up over competitions like this and they typically go and over-complicate their menu and we’re seeing some of that here.”
Acott said that such mistakes are to be expected and can be a learning experience for the chefs. “The debriefing at the end, that can give them the knowledge to grow,” Acott said.
Acott said the mistakes are typically minor – like not serving hot food hot, and cold food cold.
“You can have a 10-out-of-10 soup, but if it gets cold – even a little cold – seasonings change, the color of the soup changes and the flavor changes along with the consistency and then its lost five points,” Acott said. “Organization. There’s no excuse for not having it.”
Acott has judged the field cooking competition before – but several years ago before it settled into its present format. At that time, the meal was prepared on mobile kitchen trailers, at the field cooking training site on post. The meal had to be prepared from United Group Rations – not fresh food – and the only ones to eat the meal were judges and Advanced Individual Training soldiers.
“I like the change,” Acott said. “It’s real food and they have the skills that they can do this on this equipment.”
He added that the soldiers need to learn though that what they’re actually doing from the containerized kitchens is catering, not cooking.
“Cooking is simple and a single act, catering is difficult and involves serving the food,” Acott said.
Today, the competition opens to the public through March 9 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Field cooking events take place each day and tickets for meals can be purchased the day of the event only at 11 a.m. Tickets are $4.25 each and are allowed to be purchased up to two per person. All events take place at the post field house, just off A Avenue.
– F.M. Wiggins may be reached at 804-732-3456, ext. 3254 or email@example.com.