Road to Gold: Community helps Fort Polk chefs train to win
February 14, 2012
FORT POLK, La. -- Good food warms your heart and fills your belly, but learning how to cook it well is the recipe for success. Whether the menu is sweet pastries or savory soups, several Fort Polk Soldiers are learning how to make delicious food with help from culinary masters within the local community.
For six weeks from January through February, cooks from the 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade and the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division have worked with chefs from Atwood Bakery in Alexandria, focusing on pastries, and L'Auberge du Lac Casino and Resort in Lake Charles. Fort Polk Soldiers have been training to sharpen their skills and succeed in the kitchen in hopes of heating up the competition against other chefs at the 37th Annual Military Culinary Competition at Fort Lee, Va., Feb. 25-March 9.
"We will be training with The Booker Lewis House in Leesville after the competition. We're hoping we can make this (training) a year-long event so we can be more competitive in next year's competition," said Sgt. 1st Class Sherod Johnson, the Fort Polk Culinary Team manager.
The Soldiers have had the chance to perfect their skills by training under chefs in a variety of areas to prepare for the upcoming competition.
At L'Auberge du Lac Casino and Resort, Soldiers had the chance to train in three areas: Pastry, banquet facilities or the Ember restaurant under chefs with a wealth of knowledge.
Chef William Foltz, the pastry chef at L'Auberge, taught the chefs techniques from "basic training or pastry bootcamp" to more advanced skills, he said.
"The Soldiers came here with varying levels of experience. I teach them different mediums and help evolve their skills," said Foltz said.
One level of training for the pastry chefs was using sugar dough, or pastillage, to create showpieces. "They use airbrushing, shadowing techniques, stencils and templates to create their piece. To add color, they use cocoa paint," Foltz said.
The chefs at L'Auberge have also been working with the culinary Soldiers on what style the judges will look for at the Fort Lee competition, Foltz said. "Often, the student comes to me with an idea. I work with them to understand it and we execute it together," he said. "I have 25 years of experience, but it's hard to instill that knowledge in them in only three weeks."
Spc. Arielle Cushionberry worked under Foltz while she was at L'Auberge, planning her portion of the competition. "I'll be doing one hot and one cold dessert. I'll have 60 minutes to prepare the hot plate and 90 minutes to prepare the cold plate," Cushionberry said. "I get to bring premeasured ingredients, which will help save time."
Foltz worked with her to perfect each component because "if you can't execute one part, you're dead in the water," he said.
"Coming here, I've learned a little bit of everything. I started from scratch because what you
may know is not always what you need to know. Learning from professionals has helped me make a certain technique my own," Cushionberry said. "I've pretty much been dreaming about pastry when I sleep."
The lessons Cushionberry has learned from Foltz are "an in depth view of what a fine restaurant would serve on a refined scale," Foltz said. "This is not what would be served on a buffet to feed the masses."
Other chefs have worked in the banquet facility under Chef Robert Phillips learning to prepare consommés, confits (rubbing the meat with salt and seasoning and allowing the ingredients to cure the meat), galantines (deboned stuff meat that is poached and served cold) and torchens (a whole lobe of foie gras, or goose liver, is molded and wrapped in a netting to cook). While it may seem like an overflowing pot of French terms, the Soldier-chefs have been learning how to perfect each technique.
"It's a lot of work, but we're happy to have them," said Phillips, who trained under chefs in Las Vegas. "They're appreciative of the training. We still do our normal job, but also teach the Soldiers one-on-one."
"The training we're getting here is exceptional," said Cpl. Michael Fichman Sr.
In the restaurant, Embers, Head Chef Jose Granillo focused on teaching plating procedures. "We teach them how to make their plates look modern. We'll talk about it, show them recipes and teach them the best way to present it," Granillo said.
Sgt. Armando Hernandez learned how to prepare and plate a fresh tuna with sesame seeds, sesame oil, fresh radish and a wasabi sugar crisp.
One of the main types of dishes the Soldiers have been learning is terrines, a mixture of ground, lean meat blended with fat, similar to a pate, that is normally served cold or at room temperature.
"This is a tough experience for some of them. In the military, they don't do this level of food, so it seems harder. We push them to work hard and they sometimes get frustrated. The techniques and terminology is a lot to learn," Granillo said. "It's pleasurable having them here."
The Soldiers who trained in the banquet facilities and Embers restaurant will compete in skills competitions, platters and a "mystery basket" containing unknown ingredients to create a three-course meal.
To demonstrate their knowledge, the Soldier-chefs have conducted demos at both Leesville and DeRidder high schools. "We're trying to show them what we do in the Army. We do cool stuff, too," Johnson said.
The skills the Soldiers have learned will go with them back to the dining facilities on Fort Polk and Soldiers will benefit from what the cooks do. "Our Soldiers are spoiled on the premade stuff.
Now, our cooks can go back to the DFACs to prepare things from scratch like pastries or soups among other things," Johnson said.
The 2012 Fort Polk culinary team is made up of Staff Sgt. Patrick Hiebert as the team captain, Sgt. Armando Hernandez, Sgt. Marpue Green, Sgt. Latrice Harris, Cpl. Michael Fichman Sr., Cpl. Michael Andrews, Spc. Arielle Cushionberry, Spc. Raymond Jones, Spc. Sarah Tidwell, Spc. Antoinette Davison, Spc. Juan DeJesus, Spc. Jennifer Cole and Pfc. Erica Hamilton with team manager Sgt. 1st Class Sherod Johnson.