FORT BRAGG, N.C. - At a typical buffet, food tends to lose flavor, color and visual appeal the longer it sits in a warming tray. But at the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade Dining Facility, diners tell a different story.

"The catfish is excellent; the cherry-based Cornish hens, I love that. The barbecue ribs, the stuffed fish with crab meat ... it's creative. You could tell they think outside the box, instead of the basic norm you might find in other dining facilities. It's more of an upscale dining experience," said Sgt. 1st Class Angela Meeks, a supply sergeant with HHC 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade.
Because the menu changes daily, Soldiers enjoy fresh food for a set price of $2.75 (breakfast) or $4.25 (lunch an dinner).

"The facility is needed because, of course, it's a morale booster for Soldiers. That's one of the key things Soldiers want to have. We do enough daily operations where chow is not as edible as it should be - MREs, Jimmy Deans, those types of ready-to-serve meals that we eat on a regular basis. When you have a good dining facility, you can come and get great-tasting, plus nutritious food and it's a plus for Soldiers," said Meeks.

Nutrition is one of the "wow" factors added to this year's category of small dining facilities for the Philip A. Connelly competition - also known as the best in class of Army DFACs. Under the direction of Sgt. 1st Class Oscar Smith, dining facility manager, HHC, 82nd CAB, chefs design meals like the dieter's plate - a baked stuffed fish, one-half cup of calico corn and three-fourths cup of wild rice - all for the only 470 calories.

"We are competing with the outside sector - Applebee's, McDonald's and your Taco Bells. We have to do things totally different to bring the customers in," noted Smith.

Providing well-rounded meals for at affordable price is key to keeping our troops strong and healthy, according to officials with the Army Food Program.

So Smith and his staff emphasize the Army's 'go for green' meal guidelines, which rank foods according to their health benefits. High performance foods, according to Army guidelines, provide premium fuel for the Soldier athlete and are fresh, flavorful and packed with nutrients. The 82nd CAB DFAC encourages more consumption of foods with the green label and provides them for a price the Soldiers can afford.

Variety is just as important as health because diners come into the facility with different expectations. According to Smith, the cooks try to create something for everyone. That means a feast of everything from roast beef, Pegasus barbecue ribs, baked stuffed fish and herbed Cornish hens, to side orders like grownup macaroni and cheese, French fried okra, vegetable stir fry and jalapeno poppers. Even the drinks have flair, with selections of strawberry lemonade, lemon ice water and peach iced tea.

"I like to take a two dollar chicken breast and turn it into a ten or fifteen dollar plate," said Smith, who often watches the Food Network channel for culinary inspiration, in addition to drawing from his training at numerous Army-sponsored schools. Designing new dishes is a philosophy he instills in his Soldiers and civilian workers, because mentoring his colleagues is part of the bigger legacy Smith hopes to leave behind.

This attention to detail definitely gets noticed, especially by the hand-selected judges for this year's Philip A. Connelly awards.

"Some of the pastries we saw today, you could probably sell them downtown for twice the price," said Sgt. Maj. Michael A. Dixon Sr., one of

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16