Army chef to compete in national culinary contest
Sgt. Jeffrey Matthews is preparing for the 36th Annual Culinary Art Competition at Fort Lee, Va.

SUWON AIR BASE, South Korea - When Sgt. Jeffrey Matthews first won the silver medal at the prestigious National Culinary Art Competition at Fort Lee, Va., in 2007, he felt that was the defining moment of his life.

As he held the medal in his hands, standing in front of the media spotlight, in front of some of the nation's toughest culinary judges from the American Culinary Federation, he felt a sense of accomplishment not unlike those experienced by the world-class athletes at the Olympics closing ceremony.

After all, he had only being in the Army for one year and he was already making a name for himself.

"I recall that it was the proudest moment of my life," Matthews said. "But at the same time, the fighter in me also knew that it was not the end and my heart will not be contend until I go back to win the gold."

Matthews first discovered his life-long passion of cooking when he was 17 years old.

A native of Shreveport, La., a state known for its vibrant cuisine, Matthews learned from the best of the best - his mother.

"I learned from my mother the art of cooking with your heart and cooking without inhibition," Matthews recalled. "I am not afraid to try new ingredients or add a bit of adventure to my style of cooking."

It is this creativity that first caught the eyes of the owner of the Kon Tiki Restaurant and Fine Dining. Soon, Matthews became the star chef and manager of the popular Shreveport restaurant.

But then, Matthews enlisted in the U. S. Army as a 36-year-old private with a Millitary Occupational Specialty of 92G - Food Specialist. He was assigned to Headquarters Battery of 6th Battalion, 52nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, at Fort Sill, Okla., at the time before moving to Korea.

"I was not satisfied at that point of my life and I felt the military can teach me more about my art and myself than the civilian world would," Matthews said.

After his triumph in 2007, Matthews sought to return to the competition the following year.

But then he received the bad news that almost crushed him - he could not make the list to compete in the first round of the competition. Matthews did not pass his Army Physical Fitness Test earlier in the month, which was part of the preliminary requirement to enter the contest.

"It was heartbreaking for me to be dropped from such an elevated position and then to absolutely nothing," Matthews recalled. "But I knew I only have myself to blame ... I am not only a chef but also a Soldier and being physically fit is part of my duty as a Solder."

"From that moment on, when he [Matthews] found out he could not compete, something inside of him snapped," said Sgt. 1st Class Manuel Goncalves, noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the 6-52nd ADA Dining Facility. "The fighter inside of him came out and I knew he will get back on his feet."

Goncalves was right.

For the next few months, Matthews implemented and followed a rigorous physical training schedule and he gave all of his heart to every area of his life, professional and personal.

"I think the greatest lesson I have learned from the experience is that I must be well-rounded to excel not just in the military but in life," Matthews said. "And I must be a leader."

Since then, Matthews has attended the Warrior Leader Course and even volunteered at various social outreach program in the local Suwon Area, making a lasting difference in the lives of the children at the House of Dreams, the largest orphanage in Suwon City.

"For Thanksgiving, he made over 100 cupcakes for the children at the orphanage," said his wife Nicole Matthews.

Within a few months, then-Spc. Matthews earned his noncommissioned officer stripe and the respect of his Soldiers and peers.

At the promotion ceremony, Matthews kissed his wife and children and could not be happier.

Fast forward to the present day, Matthews is getting ready once again to compete in the Culinary Art Competition at Fort Lee, Va.

Having just earned the Co-Chef of the Quarter for Installation Management Command's Area III earlier this month, he will be heading to Yongsan Garrison in December to train and prepare for the largest culinary competition in the United States.

"I feel good about the future," said Matthews with his trademark smile. "I will be ready this time."

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