US Army Culinary Arts Competition

by Matt on May 27, 2012

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.