Kings of culinary: Fort Stewart's win at annual food service event was anything but easy
March 15, 2012
FORT LEE, Va. (March 15, 2012)-At Fort Stewart, Ga., Soldier and Family readiness command center stage. After all, its chief tenant, the 3rd Infantry Division, has been one of the busiest in the Army over the past decade, having deployed to Southwest Asia several times in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
So imagine the challenge the installation's food service establishment faced when it proposed to organize a culinary arts team for the 2012 Military Culinary Arts Competition.
"Who has time to invest in a culinary team when we have to ready Soldiers for deployment?" might have been one of the questions audaciously shot back at them in response.
The prospect of organizing and winning support for a team was daunting, said Chief Warrant Officer 4 William Liggon, the division food adviser who was instrumental in the process.
"The number one issue was how we were going to get funding," he said. A team of 12 in the culinary competition requires food and lodging support as well as food needed for training and the competitive events. There are also incidental costs.
Liggon and division food service Sgt. Maj. David Turcotte and others made it their business to secure the needed funds. They lobbied, worked the phones and later employed the age-old food service tactic of capturing hearts and minds via the taste buds.
"We put on a (food) demonstration," said Liggon, "and invited the leadership to come out."
The brass was treated to culinary delights, met the Soldiers behind those delights and received a primer on food service in general.
"From that point, they supported us 100 percent," said Liggon.
Command support is essential to fielding a competitive culinary team, but it's not the only factor. Training, caliber of personnel and experience count as well. Fort Stewart was spotty in at least two of them. No team member but Turcotte had ever attended the MCAC and only a few had any culinary experience beyond that of the dining facility.
On top of that, Fort Stewart hadn't entered the MCAC in five years, meaning that a body of institutional knowledge was either absent or seriously eroded. Turcotte, who has been assigned to Stewart for about 18 months, did see promise in something else.
"Fort Stewart has a great training program for Soldiers," he said, noting that high training standards are an embedded component to readiness. "When you have that type of training, it makes it easy to train for culinary."
The team got a four-month cushion to train up for the MCAC. Nevertheless, there were doubts the team could perform to levels required in the competition, said Spc. Jacqueline Canidy, who earned the Junior Chef of the Year title at this year's meet.
"I thought we were not going to do so well because none of us had any experience," she said after the awards ceremony, "but when the sergeant major started to train us, it began to come together."
Most of the team members, said Canidy, were not even aware of Turcotte's credentials until they arrived at Fort Lee. "He doesn't brag about it," she said, "but when we got here, everyone knew him and we finally put it together."
They found out that he is a former member of the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team and was the noncommissioned officer in charge of the advanced skills training division at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence prior to his Stewart assignment.
Turcotte put the breadth of his experience and expertise on full display at the onset of the competition. He entered himself in one of the first events -- Armed Forces Chef of the Year -- capturing a silver medal and was later announced as the title winner. That set the tone, and by the time the first week of the competition drew to a close, Stewart had captured two gold medals, was among the top contenders and had forged a reputation among the event administrators.
"A lot of people said they always knew when somebody from Stewart was competing," said Turcotte, "because of the way they prepared and organized before the event."
In the second week of competition, the Stewart team was riding a wave of momentum. They added gold medals for the Junior Chef of the Year and Student Team. A medal count board that hung on the wall of one of the competition venues, the Post Field House, indicated at least a commanding lead in gold medals. That might have been a bit misleading, however. There was no clear way to determine who was winning since each medal is awarded on the basis of a range of points.
That made for a high level of anticipation and drama on Friday, the day of the awards ceremony. The buzz around the Lee Theater had Fort Stewart as the leader, with Fort Hood (Texas) and the defending champion, the Pentagon Team, rounding out the top three. As it turned out, Stewart topped its competitors, the Pentagon finished second and a much-improved Hood team finished third. The announcement generated joy and elation among the Stewart faithful.
"I was really excited," said Canidy. "I actually wanted to jump around."
Only three points separated first and second, prompting Turcotte to surmise that it was closer than many thought but all the more worthy of celebration and a sense of accomplishment.
"I was quite proud of our Soldiers," he said, "because they worked so hard. These kids handled the pressure really well, and they came down here and kicked butt. "
Canidy assessed that whether her team won or lost, the culinary experience -- the four months of training and the two weeks of competition -- was something every food service specialist should experience.
"It was beneficial," she said. "Just seeing the other side of food service made the DFAC seem easy. I feel like I am more motivated and that I have more knowledge and experience. I'm definitely thinking about coming back next year."
Turcotte said the process of working closely with Soldiers away from the schoolhouse has reaffirmed his love for Soldiering. He has bounced around the idea of retiring but says he wants to stick around for the time being.
"We have a deployment to Afghanistan later this year," he said, "but I'm having a lot of fun down there at Stewart. I've probably learned more about putting a team together there than I have anywhere."
There is no word whether Fort Stewart plans to enter a team next year, but this year's win can't hurt.
"Hopefully, we can continue what we did this year and every year," said team member Master Sgt. Verna Bellamy.