Fort Drum cooks practice culinary skills ahead of Army competition
March 1, 2012
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- When Soldiers go to the dining facility for lunch, they don't often expect to see filet mignon, lobster, parmesan mushroom risotto and chocolate mousse on the menu.
Fort Drum and 10th Mountain Division (LI) leaders got a special lunchtime treat Feb. 22 when a handful of the installation's top culinary experts showed off their skills in preparation for the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition at Fort Lee, Va., which is hosted by the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence.
The special lunch allowed the team to practice the field cooking event, in which a five-Soldier team will be required to prepare, cook, plate and serve a three-course meal to 80 people.
The meal, which consisted of a salad wrapped in a melted parmesan cheese roll, filet mignon and lobster tail, and a chocolate mousse-filled cake with two fruit sauces, was "amazing," according to Maj. Gen. Mark A. Milley, Fort Drum and 10th Mountain Division (LI) commander. The Soldiers also displayed every dish the team will serve at the competition.
"I'm more than a little impressed with your abilities," Milley said.
Many Soldiers have represented the installation at the annual competition over the years. Milley said he believes the local team is well-prepared, and he expects them to bring home awards.
"On behalf of everybody here, (the food) was tremendous. Every one of these guys (in attendance) is a tremendous officer (or) noncommissioned officer, but none of them deserve that meal," he said, laughing.
"That meal was unbelievable. I don't think there's a restaurant north of New York City that could've prepared and served that meal that you guys served and put together," Milley continued. "That was five-star restaurant level … in terms of presentation, taste, texture and the whole nine yards. We all wish you the best of luck … and we look forward to hearing the results."
The annual competition, which began Wednesday and will run through March 9, allows not only Army food service Soldiers, but also cooks from other branches of the military -- both stateside and overseas -- to compete in more than 12 individual and team events.
Most of all, the local team hopes to bring home the coveted Installation of the Year trophy, according to Staff Sgt. Carlos Quiles, team captain and a member of 511th Military Police Company, 91st Military Police Battalion.
Quiles added that it's different cooking for fellow Soldiers versus the civilian public.
"It's more personal, because you know the people you're cooking for," he said. "(This competition) is a great opportunity. I'm glad to be able to compete again and … earn bragging rights and the experience."
The 15 Soldiers who make up the installation's culinary arts team have been busy practicing their knife skills, technique and recipes to prepare for the big competition. The Soldiers were selected by their presentations and cooking abilities at the Thanksgiving dining facility competition last fall, according to Sgt. 1st Class Leonard Phillips, 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment.
Some of the categories include junior and senior chef, nutrition, student skills, individual hot food challenge, buffet table, ice carving, centerpiece and melon carving. Some of the events are strictly for cooks 25 and younger.
Pfc. Kelsee Demass, 2-14th Infantry, is one of the youngest Soldiers on Fort Drum's culinary arts team. Demass, who said she never cooked before she joined the Army, said she now enjoys cooking because it allows her to be creative.
"There's always something to learn," she said. "I've been working every day (to prepare for the competition) -- long hours."
Demass is competing in the student skills, centerpiece and an individual hot food event where she plans on cooking duck.
"(I'm cooking) duck because I just wanted to do something different; everybody else is cooking fish or chicken," she said.
Spc. David Navarro, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, has one culinary competition under his belt and is looking forward to showing off his skills again.
"It's really important to work as a team," he said. "Every single one of us has to give 110 percent. Today, we (presented) the field category, which is a team competition. There was one team cooking and one team serving, so it's a matter of the weakest link.
"The competition might look like a TV show, but this is a reality check for every one of us. It tests every single skill we have," Navarro continued.
Staff Sgt. Michael Bogle, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 10th Mountain Division (LI), may have arrived at Fort Drum in early February, but he's no rookie to battling it out at big culinary competitions.
"It can be (nerve racking) or overwhelming, especially if it's your first time competing," Bogle said. "This will actually be my sixth (competition)."
"(The event is) nonstop competition; each day is a different event," he continued. "It's a long process, but practice and hard work pays off in the end."
Because he arrived after the local Thanksgiving competition, he submitted his credentials and expressed his interest to the G-4 Division Food Services office.
"I was on the Pentagon's culinary arts team last year, and we won installation of the year last year," Bogle explained. "Usually there (are) about 15 to 17 teams, and last year, there were 251 competitors. It keeps getting bigger every year."
Aside from technical skills, the key to having a successful culinary arts team is communication and organization, planning and practice, Bogle said.
"(Winning takes) practice, practice and more practice," he said
Army cooks, regardless of age or rank, must be open-minded, willing to learn and able to take constructive criticism in order to be successful, Bogle noted. In today's Army, some of the newer cooks have more experience to bring to the table, either from experience in professional kitchens or culinary school.
"You can't have soft skin in this field," he explained. "It's not personal."