Determination, dedication and perseverance are not only the ingredients needed for making a great Soldier, but also the recipe for a great Army cook. Pvt. Daniel Marte Pena, a food service specialist, knows those ingredients to success all to well.

Pena, a reservist with the 302nd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, served as one of many cooks in support of Task Force 76's Digital Command Post Exercise June 10-12, 2014 at the Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass.

This exercise focused on preparation for Vibrant Response 14 and their mission assignment as lead for Command and Control, Chemical, Biological, Radioactive, Nuclear Response Element -- Alpha. The C2CRE-A is the military's secondary response force to any catastrophic, man-made, domestic disaster.

But for Pena, this exercise didn't just mean more Army training; it would prove to be much, much more.

"I started cooking at the age of eleven," exclaimed Pena. "My dad told me, I had to learn how to cook because it is the only way to survive on my own as an adult."

As a young child, Pena openly admitted, he made tons of mistakes while cooking, but it was all about learning from his mistakes and improving on them for next time.

By watching other people in the kitchen, mainly his mother, and reading recipes online, he quickly picked up the art of cooking. It would prove not only to be a tool for survival but a tool for success.

"My mother is the greatest cook I know; I could never forget her food," Pena said. "I remember her making Spanish rice and baked chicken." He continued, as he rubbed his stomach reminiscing over his youthful anticipation of eating his mother's specially prepared dish, "She would make it on my birthday, and I would go crazy,"

As an adult, his favorite meal to make is Spanish rice and baked chicken.

"I used to cook for my mother often," said the Dominican Republic native. "But my mother isn't here, I currently live in West Springfield, Mass., and I could never quite match the way her food tasted."

As he looked off into the distance catching a glimpse of the past, he tapped his index finger on his chin. "Maybe she used a secret ingredient," he added.

Although his food may not taste like his mother's, in his opinion, she did teach him a valuable lesson that has helped him be successful in his military career.

"She always told me to taste my food before serving," Pena said, a lesson he values dearly. "At work, I always taste my food before others eat it to ensure I have the right amount of spices."

Pena said he puts the maximum amount of effort into his food because the taste is his reputation.

Referring to fellow teammates, "They will quickly point you out to a customer if food tastes horrible " joked Pena, as he pointed his index finger, emulating what they would do.

The only difference is, at home, adding whatever spices needed is no problem; during training, he needs the approval of leadership. Following the directions of the leadership is like following a recipe to a 't'--without any deviations said Pena.

"Cooking for the military is quite different than cooking for yourself or family members," said Pena. "You have to follow what the sergeant says, and the way he wants it…is the way you have to make it."

When he first started cooking with his reserve unit, he was a little shy to touch the food, using the equipment provided and setting up the Mobile Kitchen Trailer. However, with practice and guidance from his leadership, he quickly became confident and built upon his current knowledge of cooking.

"He's a go-getter and a hardworking individual," said Sgt. Shawn O'Dell, Pena's direct supervisor.

"This is my fourth time cooking in a field environment; it gets easier every time," said Pena.

Regardless of cooking at home or for the military, Pena knows he is a 'perfectionist.' His favorite thing to make is cake.

"Cake is one of the most important things we make; if you mess it up you've just ruined the whole meal," said Pena.

For him, baking a cake is not only therapeutic; it is also one of the most rewarding dishes he has made in his military career.

He described the intricate details of his cake making experience with a smile that stretched ear to ear. Mixing the cake batter is a crucial step that shouldn't be taken lightly. The batter must be smooth--free of clumps, lumps and of course…egg shells. Once that step is complete, he puts the batter into slightly greased pans and carefully places them into the oven. The smell of the cake as it bakes is intoxicating and creeps up the nostrils. The best part of this whole experience, is putting the icing on the cake… it's finally complete.
Looking out toward future endeavors, Pena doesn't just want to cook for the military but he also has aspirations to become a successful chef.

"He will be successful at becoming a civilian chef," said O'Dell.

By continuing on his current path of determination, dedication and perseverance, he knows he can achieve anything. And that's his recipe for success.

Page last updated Thu June 12th, 2014 at 00:00