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.





Comments

  1. says

    Hi Matt,

    I’m new to your blog, and really enjoy reading what I’ve read so far, especially this post. What an awesome opportunity to witness this, and your photos definitely make me feel like I was there. That is pretty darn cool that the Army chefs go to the CIA to hone their skills! Who knew?! And the containerized kitchen? And here I thought they just ate MREs when deployed. Cool stuff indeed :)

    -Holly

  2. Chris says

    Fascinating look inside the military world of cooking, Matt. Amazing stuff, thanks for sharing! Oh and I’m totally with you on Mexican food in VA–I had a similar experience and nothing I ordered was anywhere near authentic. Made me shudder.

  3. says

    What a wild experience-great to see they take such pride in their food and service. You never know what’s out there in the world, and who would have guessed something like this in the military? I had no idea they have a food competition, and that it is the largest in the US. Incredible, and I’m in the food business. Thanks for sharing Matt.

  4. stoney says

    wow Matt, that was quite the departure from your not-normal routine! Glad to know that the military offers such a great venue to showcase the talents of our men and woman who serve! Well done Matt, thanks for the article!

  5. Sky says

    nother good one Matt. straight. out. I am in love with the CK. Looking at that equipment my eyes dilate as every detail registers use and purpose along with the inspired thoughts about how soo great this equipment would be ‘out the boons’ round here. Your descriptive writing, precise and too the point, focuses for me just how much, again, I love this place.. USA.. and the pictures of the participants, those wonderful people, puts the icing upon my heart response. There is however one picture up there above.. (and no diss to the people no no no) that really affirms my kitchen beliefs.. that picture with the knives and the steel.. the basic necessary tools… okay, ladles and spoons and spatulas and forks, will always ensue. Anyway, iffen I was to teach a youngen about kitchen, it would start with knives and blades and how to hone, keep them. And, here’s it.. the army chefs do it, good way to start.. eh

  6. says

    Did you get to see the Grill Sergeant in action!? I just got back from an 8 month tour working with the Army in Baghdad, and my office was a media center, so one of the TVs was always tuned to the Pentagon channel (Grill Sergeant came on several times a day). Unfortunately, the food was prepared by private contractors and this sort of food would’ve been a total treat!

  7. says

    Matt, thank you for this awesome tribute to the men and women who serve our country. I feel like I was there with you, your photos and words are so vivid. I’m very moved.

  8. says

    Wow. I never thought that the army made all of these neat dishes! Thanks for sharing! It’s great to hear that the army is doing besides defending the country. LOL

  9. JBD says

    Hi Matt,
    My son participated in this competition and had a blast! Imagine my surprise and joy to see you got a photo of him on your blog! I’ve been looking for photos and there he was. Thanks for making this mom’s day!

  10. says

    I always got along with the cooks when I was in the Army. Reading about your visit to this joint service event reminded me of all the fun stuff we used to organize to keep life interesting, especially when times were tough on just about everyone. I think it’s really nice that you covered this event.

  11. says

    I spent over two years at Fort Lee in the early 70’s, as the company clerk at one of the transportation companies stationed there. This was before I became a foodie (that came after I got married and my wife taught me there was more to life than Bachelor Chow).

    I remember that the mess halls at Fort Lee tended to serve pretty good meals. My overall perception of Army food was that the quality depended on how long the personnel being served were likely to stay at that same duty post. Permanent duty stations, where you could be for a year or longer, tended to have the best food. Limited assignments, where there would be a lot of turnover (like Basic Training — 3 months — or Advanced Individual Training — six months) had decent food. The worst food I had in the Army was on my very first day, which was spent at a processing center where you’d wait one or two days to be assigned to a Basic Training company — I’m being very polite to call it “awful”.

    For field exercises, we didn’t have the full kitchen-in-a-tent like you show here, but had a mobile kitchen built on a trailer drawn by one of the ubiquitous deuce-and-a-half Army trucks. A tarp set up over the trailer provided some protection from the elements.

    I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, so I had a fair familiarity and liking for Mexican food, but, y’know, that entire two-and-a-half years I was at Fort Lee, I don’t remember having even one single brain cell go off to think “Hey, let’s go off-post and find some Mexican food!” Without any Hispanic populace to speak of to provide examples for the non-Hispanics to learn from, it was not only improbable that there’s be decent Mexican food in the local towns but actually unthinkable in my case.

    I’m surprised you found someplace that served Mexican food, but not surprised that it wasn’t good. (Could have been worse, I suppose. I once had a Canadian acquaintance describe the “take-o’s” he ate up there. Oh my. Oh dear.)

  12. Gary says

    I hesitate to add a negative opinion, but who is paying for all of this? Currently schools and libraries, etc., are taking massive budget cuts thanks to the exorbitant amount of money this country has put into the military. Of course I support the arts in various forms, culinary and otherwise, but it just seems that we’re cutting arts programs like crazy in the public sphere and still supporting the military’s programs? It just seems crazy. Obviously I don’t mean this to take away the accomplishments of the people involved, but just want to look at it from another perspective.

  13. Matt says

    Gary,

    I don’t think you have added a negative opinion whatsoever, only a different perspective and it’s completely valuable. Thank you for taking the time to make the point which I completely understand. I’m in no position to speak on military funding for the arts nor budgets for events but I do sense events like these are not only beneficial but necessary. I also think that culinary as vocation and education is what should be focused on as the military does provide training in these areas. That’s only my take on it all, though.

  14. Matt says

    Hello David!

    I actually photographed an assignment for Culture Magazine on Easter Sunday so I missed a full-fledged holiday meal. But I did have tacos for dinner! I know I know, not quite traditional….

  15. Madalene says

    Matt, I am so very impressed and grateful to you at this moment……have been for a good while….but I think that this article brings full circle the power of your pen/blog. You have handled with “elegance & style” everything that is thrown in front of you….this was no exception.

    You have brought us (your readers) humor, knowledge ( you have opened new worlds for many of us nst {not so talented}), you write with love, of parents, of Adam, of your California Family, insights to some “legends” that we would never find shopping at our HEB…………and just when I thought that you handled so many thing so very well……….you wrote this article, not about one your usual stomping grounds, the first paragraph
    touched my heart. You took a picture of a cobra made of marzipan and while there was no way to really “stage it” you honored it as what it was…. to the participants, not measuring it by the standards of your own dinner table..thanks for that

    You have been given a huge gift, your photos can make me want to eat an empty china plate with artistically tarnished silverware, you entertain us, teach us, share your excitement and joy, give praise and your blog is powerful and light at the same time……….but you took somethings that still divides a country (the military service) and you managed to let everyone see the “humaness” of those that serve and that the differences in us all are not near so many as the similarities…

    What I saw in the pictures of that cooking event was a great group of cooks who can hold their place with anyone…………you could have turned that another way……..but you didn’t………I saw young/some older, people with skills they can turn into careers…………

    If you haven’t heard it enough today…………THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOURSELF with us, you give me an entirely different, much more exciting and expansive, view of this world, and a different perspective on figs, grapes and sky blue oceans ………………M

  16. says

    Terrific work! This is the type of information that should be shared around the web. Shame on the search engines for not positioning this post higher!

  17. says

    Hi Matt! This was a fun + fascinating journey to see through your eyes. Such a unique opportunity that you got to visit these amazing folks. It means so much that the military gets to indulge and nourish themselves beyond “power bar” type meals. Really cool that some of them get CIA training too.
    sooooooo…..”“Does the Army use Macs?”

  18. says

    This was indeed a very honorable opportunity to observe our men + women in action. Thanks for sharing this eye-opening journey with us, Matt :) Often we are left in awe of their amazing service to our country. And to be able to get a glimpse into their culinary world is simply awesomeness :)

  19. brandon says

    I would just like to add one more comment if thats alright, Iam currently in the military and i am on FT. Drum’s culinary arts team and i will be competeing here in 2013, and I wanted to point out what many people dont see is that funding has been cut all across the military as well as the nation, for example the soldiers that want to compete this year have to arrange for food , lodging, and transpertation out of pocket for the competion, and concidering that we need to be in VA for nearly 3 weeks that is roughly $2,000 per soldier. We do this to help advance ourselves through our career, not beacuse it is a free ride and vacation from the army :)

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