Cooking With Pena and the ROK
September 5, 2008
The 1st Republic of Korea Military Working Dog Center's kitchen is filled with curiosity and excitement as an unusual figure is at work. With American hip-hop music blaring through the mess hall, the ROK cooks whisper and wonder about the intruder's next move. Slowly and carefully they approach her and they are met with a big smile. Meet Pvt. Genifer Pena, Food Service Specialist of the 106th Medical Detachment.
While the 129th Veterinary Medicine Medical Detachment was deployed to provide medical care and treatment for the dogs of the ROK MWDC located in Chuncheon, South Korea, Pena was given the mission to provide one American side dish to accompany the Korean meal for the U.S. and ROK Soldiers.
"Believe me, I had my doubts at first," said Pena. "I thought, how am I going to pull this off'"
The mission appeared to be a big challenge for her with the equipment, appliances, utensils and ingredients available in the kitchen. Despite everything, she managed to overcome the obstacles, and enjoyed every moment of this extraordinary experience.
Responses from the ROK soldiers were nothing but excellent. Dishes such as "Mac & Cheese," breakfast burritos, Spanish rice and brownies were warmly received, and brought many of them back to the serving area for second helpings. Many having never tried these types of cuisine before, welcomed this latest change in their military diet.
Despite the language barrier, Pena found it easy to build a close-working relationship with the ROK cooks in the MWDCs chow hall. Always with a smile, Pena made it through her long days with various hand signals and body language, as well as an occasional translation from a Korean Augmentee to the U.S. Army.
"The Cooks here are curious about what I do," said Pena. "We share dinner, recipes, and teach each other,"
She has been very impressed with the ROK chefs' skills in the kitchen.
"The way these cooks prepare for a meal is just awesome," she said. "They are quick and efficient. There is great unity in the kitchen as they help each other. And (they) just know exactly what everyone is doing. They got mad chopping skills too!"
However, things were not always flowing smoothly. Her first major challenge came when she was making brownies. Without an oven present in the kitchen, Pena struggled to come up with ways to bake them.
"I was worried. Then I decided to get creative," said Pena.
After much consideration, she chose to use a rice-cooking steamer where the heat was only applied from below, unlike an all-around heat oven. Although the brownies were baked up-side-down, all her efforts were rewarded in the end with everyone enjoying the delicious dessert of the day.
Her greatest pleasure came from interaction with the ROK soldiers. With some misconceptions and bad impression of U.S. Soldiers around, Pena is hoping to change the negative impressions of the U.S. Army.
"They were surprised at how nice and open-minded I am," said Pena. "I know there have been some unfortunate incidents, but I just want them to know not all of us are bad."
The ROK cooks of the MWDC grew fond of fun and outgoing Pena. Having been a breath of fresh air in the monotonous ROK kitchen, they were eager to share stories and snacks whenever they had free time. She also received a ROK Army cook's uniform as a token of their friendship.
"She (Pena) has been nothing but great. Although we cannot communicate as much as we want to, we get along just fine," said Sgt. Nam, Goong-dong, senior cook of the MWDCs dining facility.
Inspired and influenced by people around her, Pvt. Pena dreams of becoming a pastry chef in the future. She is planning to attend Le Cordon Blue, a culinary school in Seoul, South Korea this fall. Pena wishes to complete all three levels, basic, advanced and surplus, within a year.
"I am in love with baking," says Pena. Always working with a smile on her face, filled with great determination and a heart of gold, Pena's food and pastries will continue to bring happiness and joy to the people who eat them.
And that's the way the cookie crumbles.