US Army Culinary Arts Competition

This post originally appeared in 2010. I am rerunning it this Memorial Day weekend in remembrance of all those who have served.

Matt’s Forward: I wanted to offer a recap of the day I spent with the US Army and cover this event objectively. I wanted to view myself as a reporter of some sorts, documenting the day through words and images. But as I spent the afternoon at Fort Lee in Virginia I had a hard time removing myself from the people I met and the stories I heard. I was touched in a way that I did not expect, surrounded by passionate people who have not only dedicated their lives to the culinary world but also to the service of my country. Walking onto that base made me realize that there are people who feel so strongly about service and putting their lives on the line for the sake of others and I was blessed to meet them. It was a gift for me and changed who I am. The men and women who serve this country deserve every ounce of respect I can muster.  Thank you to everyone I met and to the US Army for inviting me to attend.

Ask me to participate in any type of competition and chances are my face will give away my thoughts on such things. While I’m the poster boy for Team Playing I just don’t fare too well when it comes to competing against others.  The competitive spirit is lost on me and I’m just more comfortable sitting at the judging table or the cheering from the sidelines.  But attend a competition? You bet. When an invitation to attend the 35th Annual US Army Culinary Arts Competition in Fort Lee came across my desk, I knew I had to say yes. The US Army? A guest? Me? I guess that makes me official now.

I arrived in Virginia with just enough time to take myself out to dinner the night before the Competition.  I thought Mexican food would be a decent choice, it’s nice to see the regional differences in Mexican cooking throughout the United States. However, here’s one thing that has no place in any Mexican restaurant, be it border town or East Coast.

A colorful "margarita", complete with soap foam, I think.

I’d like to say this was some kind of instant Margarita mix but you can see it’s not. Part Prell® Shampoo with dashes of Palmolive® and something resembling tequila, this was much more Tropical Three Mile Isle ‘Rita than the worst Long Island Iced Tea I’ve ever had the misfortune of drinking. But I finished it and since I’m not a restaurant reviewer I won’t even discuss the food. It made me sad.

The next morning began bright and early on the base at Fort Lee. I met with Matthew Montgomery, Fort Lee’s Media Relations Officer and drove to the competition hall. It was finally my way to get all my geeky military questions out of the way like “Does the Army use Macs?” and “Will you help me with military acronyms, please?” He indeed helped me with titles as well as answered my questions about technology. I promised not to nag too much and besides, I was really there for the food and competition.

When I walked into the field house, basically a large gymnasium outfitted with everything a culinary competition could ever need, I immediately sensed the spirit of competition and energy. One corner was silently busy with timed competitions, Army chefs busy cooking away while being rated and reviewed by judges. Another section housed the MKT, the portable kitchen that’s deployed in the field to feed solders (more on that in a bit). Another area was designated for the Culinary Institute of America, a partner with the US Army. In fact, the army sends soldiers to the CIA regularly to learn and hone their skills. Those skills benefit their unit and the entire culinary endeavors of the military.  And lastly, the center of the auditorium was filled with the cold and hot displays of food. Rows and rows of food were presented for judging, each dessert or appetizer neatly sealed and shellacked to keep people like me from poking, prodding and eating. It was a visual treat to see so many things in one place but also completely unfair; if you’re going to pass around trays of appetizers then please, for god’s sake, let me eat!

Two Words: Marzipan Snake

So, what is this competition exactly? It’s a tradition that spans 35 years and all branches of the US Military. Every year the competition brings together chefs from the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines as well as the National Guard and Army Reserves. It’s their way of improving the quality of food service and training for all the services and also a way to recognize excellence in the culinary arts. All cooking is done using standard equipment, the same equipment used when they’re deployed in the field.  That’s right – no fancy set ups, no walk-ins, no high-end kitchens at this competition. And it also happens to be the largest culinary competition in the entire United States. That’s right – the largest.

On the left side of the field house the Student Team competition takes place. It’s for both junior team members and apprentices. It’s a two phase competition that tests the chefs’ basic culinary skills and their ability to execute a four course menu. Phase one involves an 80 minute challenge in which the chefs race against the clock to complete various culinary tasks like butchery, classic vegetable knife cuts and pastry techniques. Phase two is a preparation and service of a four course meal with only 90 minutes to complete from beginning to end.  I tried not to get in the way of this timed competition even though the Army gave me a big fancy press pass. And even though these young soldiers are focused and concentrating I think I did manage to get a few smiles for the camera afterwards.

One of the bigger events during the competition is the Field event. This consists of five members that are required to cook a three course meal for 80 customers using the containerized kitchen, or CK. They not only plan their meal and prepare it but also serve it to the public. Finally, I get to eat! As if that’s not enough, they only have a certain amount of time for the entire event and must complete their event while simultaneously sharing the area with another competitor. During my visit it was the Army vs Marines. I ate on the Army side of the room, I wonder how the Marines did. My meal of lobster bisque, lamb over polenta and tiramisu was great and enjoyable. Secret: it completely exceeded my expectations.

Because I’m a food geek I was particularly interested in the logistics of it all.  It’s a highly efficient operation with separate cooking areas, sanitation, dishwashing and food storage. It can all be set up wherever the Army is deployed and in fact the containerized kitchen only takes about an hour to set up and 30 minutes to break down. And no matter what needs to be done – grilling, baking, sautéing, boiling – it can all be handled in the CK.  Pretty nifty, I think.

Grilling, baking, sauteeing: it can be done here

A separate tent houses all the sanitation action

I was pretty fascinated by the sanitation station and asked how hot the temperature of the water was in the portable sinks. “Put your hand in there and find out” was the snappy answer I received along with a cute little grin, thankyouverymuch.

I want to offer my sincere gratitude to the US Army for allowing me to visit Fort Lee, Virginia and the Culinary Competition.  A special thanks to Matthew Montgomery, Fort Lee’s Media Relations Officer; U.S. Army CW4 Russell D. Campbell, Chief of the Advanced Food Service Training Division Joint Culinary Center of Excellence (JCCoE); and CW4 Robert Sparks, Chief of Advanced Food Service Training Division Joint Culinary Center of Excellence (JCCoE).

FTC Disclosure Statement: Travel and accommodations provided by The United States Army.





Chili Rubbed Salmon with Cilantro Avocado Salsa

A wonderful reader left a comment about my Copper River Salmon story and asked for a recipe. Well  have I got one for you! This recipe is courtesy the California Avocado Commission and just happens to be photographed by, oh, you know. Written by Amy Sherman, I remember shooting this last year (or year before?) like it was yesterday, it really was a beautiful dish that tasted so fantastic. Give me salmon with California avocado and I’m a happy boy. Enjoy it!

Chili Rubbed Salmon with Cilantro Avocado Salsa
4 medium tomatillos, husked and rinsed
¼ cup chopped green onion
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 ½ Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 ripe, Fresh California Avocado, seeded and diced
tsp. jalapeño, seeded and minced (or to taste)
1 ½ Tbsp. chili powder
½ tsp. cumin
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. kosher salt
4 (6-oz) wild Copper River salmon fillets

Place tomatillos in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 5 minutes. Remove tomatillos and when cool enough to handle, roughly chop them.

Combine the tomatillos, onion, cilantro and lime juice. Gently fold in the avocado and add jalapeño. Season with salt to taste.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine chili powder, cumin, sugar and salt. Sprinkle fish with spice mix.

Heat a large oven-proof nonstick skillet over medium heat.

Cook the salmon rub side down for 2 minutes then flip and place pan in the oven for about 5-6 minutes or until cooked through. Transfer fish fillets to plates and top with the Cilantro Avocado Salsa.

HERE COMES THAT DARN DISCLOSURE AGAIN: California Avocado Commission is my client. I did not get paid for this post. Yay avocados!

 

Copper River Salmon. It’s time!

The efforts to fish and preserve this food source lie in the delicate balance of Mother Nature and the lifelong dedication of a group of some pretty special people.

“You really have to want to be here, in Cordova,” I heard from more than just one person. “You don’t accidentally stumble or end up here. But if this place speaks to you, you might just never leave.”

This was one of the first things I learned when I visited Cordova, Alaska last summer as a guest of the Copper River Marketing Organization. I thought I knew the fish well, both as a cook and from my food marketing days, but my knowledge didn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg when it came to understanding sustainability, geography, the life span of salmon and how much work it takes to bring this noble fish to market.

I also could never have prepared myself for Alaska’s arresting beauty.

A huge part of what makes these salmon so special is their home. They spawn here, then travel outside of the Copper River to live and grow but make their way back after several years, traveling hundreds of miles to return. The river snakes via various tributaries, and it is this long passage that requires the salmon to store plenty of extra omega-3 fatty acids in their bodies. This is what makes them desirable, delicious, and worth preserving. More on that in a bit.

While there are 5 varieties of Alaskan salmon, Copper River salmon means King, Sockeye and Coho (or silver). Each variety has their own qualities in regards to shape, size, and abundance in terms of harvest. But if you ask me to pick a favorite, well, I can’t. I’ll take any of them, any day of the week.

And then there’s the sustainability. Rarely have I seen the idea and practice of sustainability in such a holistic form; it is everything these people do. It has to be if they are to preserve a species that supplies us food but takes years to grow. Their attempts are nothing short of miraculous.

Salmon are caught during something called a Run, with very distinct starting and stopping points set up during each run. Runs are determined by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADF&G. The ADF&G set the run times, which are anywhere from 12 to 72 hours long and based on a very accurate fish count. Counts are made via underwater sonar, monitored by people in shifts, and fishcounts are also made from planes flying over fishing grounds. Based on how many fish escape into the wild and how many are returning to spawn determines just how many fish can be caught. This strict adherence guarantees that there will be enough fish not only for next year’s harvest but also for generations to come.

And then there’s Cordova itself. A small town at the base of the Copper River, it’s a rugged place with a vast waterfront that rests in front of deep green mountains. It’s serene in summer and not-so-forgiving in winter. I was reminded by the residents that my visit occurred during the best possible time of the year, giving me warm sunlight and tranquil winds which allowed me plenty of memorable photo moments. The late day sun never went down, allowing me plenty of beer time, too. I spent the first few nights with my curtains open, the novelty of sun at 1am making me smile until the effects of disturbed sleep took its toll by the third day. I eventually learned to make peace with a sun that never quite went away. It’s glorious and made me giddy.

And just who are these people who spend their days doing the hard work so that we can eat these fish? They’re wonderful people from all over, some of those same people who stopped by once and never left. They’re gracious, gregarious, elegant even. The opposite of the salty fisherman stereotype, at least to me. And they made me love Cordova and all that it is, or at least what I learned about her in my short time there. The magic of the land doesn’t stop with the earth – it flows straight through the residents.

I dream of returning one day, of drinking beer at 10:30pm in the sunlight, of learning more about Copper River Salmon, of finally pulling my own weight on Kim’s boat and not turning green and clammy (sorry, Kim!) and maybe to repay the generosity of Mother Nature and the people of Cordova, Alaska.

I’ll start by eating more fish.

Copper River Salmon season is underway. To find it near you, visit Copper River Salmon.org and click here. For disclosure purposes, I was a guest of Copper River last year and have done work for the California Avocado Commission which has worked with Copper River Salmon for cross-promotions. In fact, the big giant recipe on the main page is mine. All opinions expressed in this post are my own, photography is copyright me me me. Thank you!

Life’s Little Luxuries. With Cheese!

The post is sponsored by Häagen-Dazs® ice cream, encouraging life’s little luxuries. It’s about taking a step back and enjoying all that’s important and delicious in life.

Last week’s post explored ways of celebrating with friends and family. I was overwhelmed with the responses and learned so many great ways to celebrate life’s little luxuries through food and gatherings. This week I wanted to explore a little bit more but get just a wee bit more intimate. And no, there’s no need to cue the Barry White. Unless you want to!

This week I turned to my friends, my parents and even yours truly to  find out how we share the everyday moments and make them special.

First, I asked my neighbors and friends Brittany and Wade, two of the loveliest people you’d ever meet. Filled with so much style, love and light, they exemplify what two people in love mean to me: they’re forever planning weekends together, they’ll spend an afternoon hiking, a weekend camping, or an early morning hitting a museum for an exhibit. They love life, they love each other, and you just never feel like your interrupting (oh god I think we all know those couples, right? Well it’s not Wade & Britt).  I asked Brittany what they’d do to celebrate at home and the type of meals they enjoy, and luckily she wrote about their Valentine’s Day tradition on their blog. It involves making handmade ravioli, and if I know them it also means a fantastic wine and great music in the background. I’ve written about them before, and I want to thank them for being such great friends.

Speaking of role models, it’s time to introduce my parents. Married 50 years this past December, they’re not only loving people but they raised THE BEST MOST AMAZING SON ANY TWO PEOPLE HAVE EVER RAISED. (Jeez I couldn’t even pull that off, could I? You can stop rolling your eyes now.) But back to Benjamin and Helen. In many ways I’m continually moved by the love they have for each other, and how just being together on a weeknight is reason enough to celebrate with a good meal. I rang my mom up to find out what makes a special meal for the two of them, and being as cute as she is her answer was “Well it depends on the season.” I told her to pick summer since it’s right around the corner, and her answer illustrates how taking something so simple can be extraordinary. “Well we’d definitely head outside and grill vegetables, and since steak is best for special occasions we might cook that too. But not a big steak. Add a nice crispy salad, we don’t need a starchy side, and a fantastic beer for your father and a glass of prosecco for me and we are set.” And the thought of a wonderful meal between the two of them on a long summer night in the hill country of Texas makes me realize how wonderful life really is when you share it with the love of your life.

Speaking of the love of my life, what would we do here at home to indulge in life’s little luxuries? Honestly it’s not oysters on the half shell, lobsters or anything typically fancy. When you work with food daily at the studio we tend to prefer something easy, silly, fun and comforting, or a combination of all those things. But the meal we always come back to is fondue, and it’s served us well: it’s our New Year’s Eve traditional party dinner, complete with friends and tons of beer. It’s a simple meal for two of us, complete with champagne. It’s so easy yet feels so special, and I was really inspired by Sherri Jo’s revelation that her family has a weeknight fondue. So here’s to Sherri Jo and to celebrating life’s simple pleasure’s through food. And also to Wade and Brittany and to my Mom & Dad for showing the world what love — and good food — is all about.

 


Matt’s Cheese Fondue
This recipe is from my book, On A Stick!, and I can make it with my eyes closed. Which is good because I usually turn off all the lights and light candles and blast Dusty Springfield when I make this. I don’t know why, it just makes me feel so 60s. I mean 1960s, y’all.

Cheese Sauce:
1 2⁄3 cups dry white wine
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
1 cup grated Jarlsberg (or other Swiss) cheese
1⁄8 tsp pepper
1 cup French bread, cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1⁄2 cup broccoli florets, blanched
1⁄2 cup cauliflower florets, blanched
1⁄2 cup quartered slices of salami

1. Make the cheese sauce: Bring wine and garlic to a simmer in a medium saucepan; whisk in cheeses until sauce is smooth. Season with white pepper to taste.

2. Transfer to a fondue pot set over a lit candle. (If using an electric style, set it to low.)

3. Arrange bread, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and salami on a platter. Serve with forks alongside fondue pot, stirring sauce occasionally to maintain a smooth, uniform texture.

Note: this amount makes enough for a party, reduce if it’s just for 2.

Photographing the new Food Network Cupcakes! App

What do you get when you combine 1400 cupcakes, delicious recipes, a team of talented folks, a week of photography, 50 lbs of butter and sugar and plenty of code and technology?

Food Network’s Cupcakes! App, and folks let me tell you how incredible the entire experience was. This app for the iPad contains more than 100 cupcake and frosting recipes, and if I was a glutton I’d tell you I actually tasted most of them. But I’m not (wink wink) and I only tried 99 or so, give or take one or two.

Now that the app is out it’s such a delight to sit back and scroll through the recipes and watch the videos, but there was quite a bit of work that goes into making an application of this magnitude. Lots of meetings, plenty of discussions, and that’s just before we even set foot into the studio to begin the main photography. Once we were in our groove it became a wonderful yet serious endeavor, with dozens of cupcakes baked, frosted and decorated, sets constructed, frames animated, images approved, and so on. This doesn’t even count the amazing design work that happened after photography, and trust me when I say this as I’m sure I could be biased: it’s one fantastic  application.

And the recipes? Solid and thorough, tested like crazy from the Food Network kitchens in New York. One day I’ll even share with you my favorite cupcake from the entire app (hint: it’s savory, not sweet!). But first you’ll need to buy the app from itunes. You’ll love it.

Until then how about some behind the scenes images?

A messy studio is a productive studio. Well, that’s what I kept saying as we began to be overrun with these sweet treats. And props. And surfaces. Since shooting this we’ve expanded the studio, thank goodness. But there is something fun about being up to your eyeballs in cupcakes, even if the powers-that-be kept their eyes on you so that you wouldn’t eat them.

Here we are working on one of the animations from the application. Have you seen it? I still chuckle every time, it’s adorable. And the cupcakes are delicious. I keep saying there’s a skinny elf in this image over on the computer but really, that’s just Armando who came in from NYC to assist and save the day on numerous occasions. I love you, Mando!

Look, it’s the elf again. The application not only contains recipes but tips and tricks about frosting as well as having the right gear on hand to create many of the cupcakes. Here’s an extreme overhead shot.

Adam works on another animation, this time featuring candy bees and a hive made out of cupcakes. Quite possibly my favorite bit of the application.

For a week the studio became a fine-tuned cupcake factory (we even installed a 3rd oven!), and batches of cupcake cooled throughout the studio. It was quite a sight to see.

Here’s Alexis, Adam’s assistant extraordinaire. I asked her to perform double duty and hand model for one of these scenes. You couldn’t ask for a better person to work with, we love her so much. She doesn’t even slap me when I print out photos of her from facebook and stick them to the kitchen ceiling. Not yet, at least.

More cupcakes awaiting their close up!

You know you’re fancy when you’re building custom-made props and boxes for cupcakes, right? Of course, them gems deserved nothing less. And when you can’t find exactly what you need you make it yourself, no?

And lastly, here are a few more screen shots from the app. You can buy yours from the iTunes store here. Thanks so much to Deb and Mory and everyone at Food Network. A very special thanks to the design team for making such a beautiful and intuitive application, it’s an honor to be involved! Now go eat a cupcake!

 

 

 

Life’s Little Luxuries: Everyday Celebrations

The following is a post inspired by Häagen-Dazs® ice cream, encouraging life’s little luxuries. It’s about taking a step back and enjoying all that’s important and delicious in life.

When I began writing about this topic, I thought it’d be easy. I was going to start by saying that even though the vacation is months away or that long weekend getaway isn’t even on the books yet that there were a few things you could do to have some fun. I knew I had certain rituals to make a Wednesday seem special (it’s a bottle of champagne enjoyed with a roasted chicken), but when I posed the question of Facebook it became an entirely different post.

What did I find? I discovered that there were dozens of people, some personal acquaintances and some not, who don’t need an excuse, a blog post, or even a reason to celebrate what matters most to them. There are people so filled with life that it spills out and flows all around them, people that really know what matters most (hint: it can’t be bought!) and people who love life so much that there is always a celebration or party wherever they may be.

Even on a Monday.

Heck, these people are my role models!

I discovered that Monica will pile the kids into the car and head out to the nearest ice cream place and eat huge sundaes for dinner, just to make an ordinary day extraordinary. The thought of this brings the world’s biggest smile to my face, can you imagine how it’d make you feel as a kid? I adore Monica and know this isn’t an everyday event, it’s for those special moments when you throw caution to the wind and really do something fun as a family. I think a spontaneous Sundae Supper is going to be a tradition over here.

 

I learned that Sherri Jo will have a weeknight fondue with the family in the middle of the living room with a great movie and plenty of special drinks (cocktails for the adults, mocktails for the kids), even in the fancy glasses! You want to talk about celebrating life! This is a party of the “just because” variety, and it makes me realize that when you love life and your family you always have a reason to celebrate. I can hear the laughter and see the smiles from here! Besides, melted cheese? Oh Sherri Jo I love you…

 

My friend Ellen of Neat Productions (who also happens to be my Photographic Guardian Angel, fyi) tells me a very special tale that all business owners and freelancers will appreciate: she takes her lunch outside, complete with silver tray and beautiful china. On a regular day. Because her husband is a freelancer as well, they do not discuss work things during their outdoor break, instead taking the time to sit under a tree and enjoy the meal before them as well as each other’s company. I don’t think I’ve ever taken the time to enjoy lunch this way, it’s usually a rushed affair where I barely stop to acknowledge my surroundings. I aspire to incorporate a bit more Ellen into my life, and I’m starting with this very simple way of celebrating life’s little luxuries.

 

Stephanie had an excellent way to make your day special, and it seemed to be enjoyed by a few others as well: breakfast for dinner. There were a few times as a kid we did this too, and it always made me smile. I can’t really explain why, something about changing things up with food makes it automatically special, or maybe it’s sitting down to a plate of fluffy pancakes for dinner that makes life special. It’s all about the celebration.

 

Denise tells me of a tradition that must immediately be incorporated into my life: Champagne Fridays. These tastings happen one Friday a month and involve tasting (and enjoying) a new champagne at home. As a bubbles lover this sings to me, and I love the idea of taking something so regular and elevating it into something elegant at home. And since we’re on the adult beverages tip, I can’t find a better example of someone who knows how to celebrate better than my friend Dana Robinson, who was my very first friend when I moved to LA over 10 years ago. She’s also my ITG (International Travel Girlfriend), but what I admire most is her longstanding tradition of creating a luscious bloody mary bar at home on Sunday mornings. Just because. Laying out great ingredients, a good vodka, gorgeous glassware and inviting friends over makes for a perfect weekend. PERFECT. And when I think about the afternoon nap that must follow afterwards, well, this is really what life is all about, isn’t it?

And Other discoveries? Grady makes sure to enjoy dinner with a beautiful place setting, napkins, and real flowers on the table. Diane keeps fresh flowers at her office on Mondays. Elizabeth and her boys give each other awards at dinner: “Best Mom”, “Best Cookie Eating” and have indoor picnics. Many others celebrate with Pizza Nights, Burrito Nights and Taco Nights (hell to the yes here, folks!). And my dear friend Linda keeps special ingredients on hand (homemade pâté!) which she will enjoy with a baguette and champagne followed by macarons on days that prove to be a challenge.

I sincerely want to thank all the people who took the time to share the special moments in their lives that celebrate everyday through food and drink. If these aren’t surefire ways to celebrate and enjoy life’s simple pleasures then I don’t know what is. Now I’m off to find some champagne!

Join me on Saturday, May 19th!

Friends, I want to tell you a few things.

First, that glorious photo of me was taken by the amazing Gabriel Goldberg. A beautiful man who only photographs beautiful people and celebrities. Gabriel, I want to say thank you for lowering your standards by agreeing to photograph me.

Second, there is an event coming up where I will discuss the worlds of photography and social media, and it should be rather fun.

Third, the copy for this program was written by my friend and fellow Texan Kim Phipps, and please note that I would never under any circumstances refer to myself as a superstar. NEVER. Ugh! Dork? Yes. Weirdo? Yes. Funky fresh? Perhaps. But “superstar” should be reserved for those with fan clubs or discussion of Karen Carpenter songs. NOT ME. Now that I have that out of the way, let’s continue.

This event, put on by the American Society of Picture Professionals, takes place Saturday, May 19th from 9:30am to 1pm in Culver City, California. The ASPP is a community of image experts committed to sharing experiences and knowledge throughout the industry, and I’m really looking forward to a robust discussion about social media and food photography with everyone. I have absolutely no intention of standing before a crowd for 3 1/2 hours so I will be preparing a song and dance number from NBC’s recent smash “Smash”. My god I love that show.

All joking aside, I really do hope you can make it. Since this focuses on food photography and social media, it would be great to meet and hear your story about social media and how it connects us all, too. And we can talk about food photography, which is always something I could do for hours and hours until Adam tells me to wrap it up and stop talking.

And yea, he’ll be there too so you can ask some food styling questions if you have them!

Click on over to Eventbrite to register for this event and I really do hope to see you there!