By Ms. Amy N. Perry (IMCOM-Fort Lee)March 14, 2014
FORT LEE, Va. -- Regardless of the ingredients or cooking utensils provided, exquisite and professionally prepared meals are an expected outcome of the annual Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event here.
More than 200 food service personnel, representing military bases around the world and each branch of service, participated in the March 9-13 training event. They were put to the test in many different ways, including one challenge -- the Military Hot Food Kitchen category -- that required them to produce a five-star meal on Mobile Kitchen Trailers.
To understand the difficulty level of this event, you need to know a little bit about the MKT. It's specifically built for food service operations in remote areas. There are no fancy grills and cooking gadgets; just general purpose gas burners, an M59 range, insulated food and beverage containers, and so on. The working space is also tight … after all; it was built for the "efficient preparation of field rations."
Despite the challenges that cooking on a MKT presents, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Charles H. Talley Jr., the lead of this year's MCACTE, said the participating teams provided top-notch meals that earned rave reviews by judges and spectators alike throughout the week.
Fifteen teams offered three-course lunches that included entrees like stuffed beef tenderloin in a red wine reduction sauce, a pepper flank steak with haricot verts (French green beans), garlic rosemary chicken supreme, filet mignon with chasseus sauce, and a seared rack of lamb infused with lavender tea, among many other offerings.
"For the main course, it was a pretty level playing field this year," said Talley, while comparing the teams. "We've had variety from lamb to duck, and teams have delivered that always safe and sure beef tenderloin.
"I'm very impressed by the quality of desserts that came off the trailers," he continued. "Sometimes, it's a challenge to prepare desserts because the field stove that is on these MKTs is the modern burner unit that puts out a high level of heat. So, if you don't have proper temperature controls in place, the baking element can be a challenge. However, I've seen some good pastry and baked items come out this year."
Some competitors -- like Marine Sgt. Joseph Hale from the Pentagon team -- have never used the MKT before. His service uses a different model of food service equipment in the field.
"It was interesting because I had never worked with it," he said, "but our team was good at adapting (to) and overcoming those challenges. There were little things that we had to pay attention to like, on a regular stove, you have four different burners and you can control the heat on each one. On an MKT, one burner controls the heat for the entire stove. You have to shift pots to the heat you need."
While the event can be stressful, the participants speak highly of its training value. In the end, they gain valuable knowledge about how to improve what they cook for the troops back at their home station.
"As a military chef, this event makes you want to do those nice things for Soldiers on a daily basis," said Pfc. Matthew Thomas from the Fort Bliss, Texas, team. "It's (a training experience that) we're going to take back to our dining facilities and put into practice when we go out to the field. "
Agreeing that the event was great training opportunity, Talley said it complimented the overarching goal of this year's culinary meet.
"The MKT and all of it has been a great experience not only because of the excitement of seeing teams pitting their skills against each other, but also the many opportunities to train and increase the knowledge of so many military food service personnel at the same time," he said. "We hope that they will go back to their duty stations and apply the skills they learned here this week."
There is one additional aspect of the Military Hot Food Kitchen category that puts it at the top of the popularity list. All of the meals produced are served in a restaurant-style setting to those fortunate spectators who are in the right place at the right time to purchase a $4.60 meal ticket.
"That's what makes it the biggest event of the week," said Talley. "And I really hate it when people can't get tickets because, on most of the days of the event, we have more demand for these prestigious meals than we were able to serve. Looking at it another way, though, it's great because it means the public is experiencing that direct connection with these competitors and learning what they can do because of the training and dedication they have for the military culinary arts field."