Raider chefs fight to be 'Last Cook Standing'
October 7, 2011
FORT STEWART, Ga. - Chicken breast stuffed with spinach, bean sprouts and cream cheese, pan seared and finished in the oven. Rosemary diced potatoes sautéed in bacon fat, and a side of carrots.
The dish sounds like one being described in a white tablecloth restaurant, with a napkin-draped-over-the-arm waiter and a reservation list.
But on Sept. 21, five cooks lined up in front of tin-foil covered trays sitting on a stainless steel table in the Raider dining facility's kitchen, and two hours later the described dish was one of multiple that was carried out of the kitchen toward a room of awaiting judges during the 'Last Cook Standing' cooking competition.
Modeled after the popular television series "Top Chef," the competition was held to decide which two cooks would move on to compete for the Third Infantry Division Cook of the Year.
Sergeant Ned Thomas, a food operations non-commissioned officer with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team, competed in the Third Infantry Division board last year but didn't win, so he hoped to have another shot at the title.
"I wanted a chance to compete again, so this was the first step," Sgt. Thomas said, a native of South Bend, Ind.
Each cook was given a tray with raw chicken, potatoes, carrots and bean sprouts. The ingredients were a surprise so the contestants would have no way of deciding what their dishes would be prior to the competition.
"Since you don't know what you're going to get, you just have to do what you know and hope it turns out to be [good] quality," Sgt. Thomas said. "The syllabus said, 'for example: chicken, potatoes, and carrots,' so in our heads we were hoping that was it. But it was still a possibility we would open up the trays and have no idea what was inside."
Preparing for a test like this is difficult, said Spc. River Mitchell, a food service specialist with Co. F, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment.
"I started studying with a couple of my friends [for the board] since June,"he explained. "The past month we started to go really hard and studied every night. But as far as cooking goes, just knowing what products go with what and how to prepare certain things is all you can really do."
Once the competitors removed the tin foil and saw what the base products they had to cook with were, they had ten minutes to pull other ingredients from the pantries and refrigerators to include in the dish they decided to make.
"I walked into the refrigerator and saw a case of mangos," Sgt. Thomas said. "We don't normally have mangos, so I decided that was what I was going to base my chicken off of. As far as my potato dish, I had already learned a recipe for tomato chutney, so it was just a matter of taking some new ideas and combining them with some things I had learned before and trying it out to see how it worked."
Both Sgt. Thomas and Spc. Mitchell had challenges to work around when it came down to the last few minutes.
"When they said there were ten minutes left, all my food was done so my biggest concern was keeping it warm," explained Spc. Mitchell, a native of Grove Town, Ga. "It's not smart to just let it sit on the counter top and get cold. I put it back in the oven and cracked open the door so it was just a warming oven."
When the host called 'twelve minutes left,' Sgt. Thomas had the opposite issue.
"That's when reality hit me and I really realized I was on a time schedule," he said with a laugh. "I got my chicken going early, and I knew my chicken, which would take the longest, was out of the way so I kind of got too comfortable. I hadn't started my potatoes at all before he said twelve minutes. And then he said three minutes and all I had on my plate was the chicken.
Everything was done, but it was just a matter of placing it on."
However, both Soldiers were ready when the timer hit zero.
After walking their dishes out to the display table one at a time, they had to explain to the judges what their meal consisted of and allow them to taste-test. Then the competitors waited anxiously for the scores to be tallied.
Points were awarded for taste, originality and presentation.
As well as winning the chance to compete at the division level, the Soldier and NCO winners are going to be sent to the Ford Plantation, a pilot training program where Soldiers from across the division are hand selected to train for 4-6 weeks under the discerning eye of Executive Chef Juan Carlos Rodriguez. The program is a way for Soldiers to acquire new culinary tactics that go beyond the military's 21-day menu rotation.
Once each of the five Soldiers presented their dishes, they lined up along the display table, and it was announced Sgt. Thomas and Spc. Mitchell had won for the NCO and Soldier categories, respectively.
"I didn't win the [cook of the year] board last year, so it feels good to get this part out of the way so now I can prepare myself to try to win division cook of the year," said Sgt. Thomas. "I was the first person from 1HBCT to go to Ford Plantation. You learn a lot of stuff there. So much stuff you almost can't absorb it all unless you do it again. They use all fresh materials there, and you get to learn things you just never get to learn in an Army dining facility. Specialist Mitchell is excited to go for the first time.
"I love going to new places and I love trying new things and learning, so this will be fun," he said.
Sergeant Thomas concluded that when it comes to cooking, there is one key ingredient that can't necessarily be tasted.
"I think it's just a matter of putting your heart into it. As long as you put your heart into it it's going to be quality."