By Eric Durr, New York National GuardSeptember 30, 2019
NEW YORK - Ten New York Army National Guard cooks assigned to F Company, 427th Brigade Support Battalion will be competing to be the best food service team in the Army National Guard in March.
The Fox Company culinary specialists, who usually feed the 450 members of the 1st Battalion, 258th Field Artillery, won the regional Army National Guard Food Service Phillip A. Connelly competition this summer. The contest recognizes excellence in Army cooks.
The food service section was evaluated on July 26, 2019, during the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team annual training at Fort Drum.
A team of evaluators went through the section paperwork, and also assessed their performance in preparing and serving a meal in the field in a tactical feeding scenario.
That assessment was compared with those of other Army Guard food service sections in the region and the F Company culinary specialists came out on top, explained Chief Warrant Officer Three Nakia Dukes, the food program manager for the New York Army National Guard.
"It is very difficult to make it to the Department of the Army level," Dukes said. "In some cases, there can be a difference of one point between the winner and runner-up for the regional level competition," he said. "Every point matters."
Staff Sgt. Eli Solis, the F Company food service manager, credits the regional win to an emphasis on basic kitchen skills, hard work by the cooks, and support from the rest of the company.
The section currently only has 10 of its 16 assigned Soldiers and without the loan of additional personnel to help serve as kitchen helpers, a security force, and extra drivers, and mechanics, his Soldiers would not have been able to compete, Solis explained.
In addition to being six cooks understrength, the food service section is also made up mostly of newly assigned Soldiers.
"Most of them are college students. We have a few working on bachelor's degrees and a few with master's degrees," Solis said.
He's a chef in civilian life and the only member of the culinary team with outside experience in the food service industry, Solis added.
The outside experience Solis brings has made a real difference to the professionalism of the section, said Spec. Erica Bishop, culinary specialists in Fox Company for the last five years.
"He has taught us a lot about cooking techniques and I think that really helps on working smoothly together," she said.
The team also works well together because they use constructive criticism to improve, Bishop added.
Now Solis's the foodservice Soldiers, who drill at the New York State Armory in Jamaica, Queens, will compete against three other Army Guard culinary sections: from the 195th Forward Support Company in Nebraska; Headquarters Company of the 429th Support Battalion in Virginia; and Headquarters Detachment of the 109th Medical Battalion in Iowa.
Army Reserve cooks and active Army cooks will also compete to be the best in their components.
The winners will be recognized at the annual convention of the National Restaurant Association, which sponsors the event. Individual Soldiers in the winning unit will be able to go for a week of training at the Culinary Institute of America as well as earning bragging rights.
"We are all very excited about it and we are really thrilled at being able to represent New York in this competition, "said Sgt. David Selman.
Bishop agreed that making it to the final step in the competition was pretty exciting.
"It makes us feel really good to be part of something bigger and to represent all the culinary specialists in the New York Army National Guard," she said.
"But we're also feeling a little bit of pressure because we are not done yet," Solis cautioned."We want to do better. We want to win the national Connelly food service competition."
"We're not going to take our foot off the gas. We're going to keep going," Selman said.
Because so many of his cooks are straight out of training and have no outside professional food experience, Solis said he and his three NCOs focus on teaching the basics: cooking from raw ingredients, knife skills, and following recipes.
Solis--the food service manager for the last four years--said he also focuses on teamwork.
During their July 26 evaluation the Containerized Kitchen's oven didn't work as it should have, he said.
"We came up with a solution, worked together, moving from one station to the next to make sure nobody was falling behind schedule and were able to put a great meal out on time," Solis said.
Having an expert watch while you do your job is the hardest part of the Connelly competition, Solis said.
"In the beginning, it was really rough because the troops were afraid they would make a mistake," he explained. "After a while, they forgot somebody was watching and they just concentrated on the mission."
The Army-level competitions require that the evaluation be done in January, February or March 2020. A team of evaluators from the Army Quartermaster School and the National Restaurant Association will watch the process as the mess section feeds Soldiers in the field.
They will also be looking carefully at the food service section's ordering and logistics process and checking documentation, Dukes said.
The Fox Company cooks have asked to be evaluated on March 7, 2020, at the New York National Guard's Camp Smith Training Site near Peekskill, N.Y.
They picked the date because the worst of the New York winter weather should be over by then, Solis said.
To get ready for this level of competition, the cooks will conduct some retraining on basic skills like following recipes and menus. But a major emphasis will be on paperwork, he said.
"We know that cooking is only half the battle. So we'll dedicate most of our preparation training time to ensure that our food service documents and equipment maintenance are properly recorded," Solis emphasized.
Another key issue will be making sure the containerized kitchen, which includes generators, water, refrigerators, and an oven, is in top working order, Selman said.
The team will be focusing on preventative maintenance for their kitchen, which can feed up to 800 troops at each meal, he said.
Being part of the Connelly competition is great, Selman said, but the thing he likes best about being an Army cook is knowing that what you do helps every Soldier in the unit.
"I know most of the Soldiers in my entire battalion on a first name basis because they come through our kitchen," he said.
Those relationships make the culinary section want to be the best, Selman said.
"We have a saying in our section, Solis said, 'Never send any food out to the troops that you, yourself, won't eat.'"