For members of the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team, white coats and sauté pans will soon replace camouflage and rucks as they prepare to compete in the 25th IKA Culinary Olympics, the world's largest international culinary art exhibit, to be held Feb. 14-19, 2020, in Stuttgart, Germany.
USACAT is the national military culinary team and competes at local, national and international culinary competitions to showcase the talent and professionalism of service members. Members of the team are selected through military competitions and qualifying events, where they are evaluated on their culinary skills and knowledge, methods and character. It is managed by the Training and Doctrine Command's Sustainment Center of Excellence through the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence. JCCoE trains and develops food service professionals, from all services, throughout their careers from advanced individual training through advanced professional courses.
The team, made up of members from across different branches of the Armed Forces, will represent not only the military, but America as well since they will also help support Team USA at the competition.
Through the competitions they participate in, USACAT members are able to hone and expand their culinary skills, and help advance the quality of food service at military dining facilities by sharing the specialized cooking skills they develop.
"USACAT, to me, shows a different aspect of conventional Army cooking, which is more bulk cooking," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Eveline Rosado-Haliday, Advanced Culinary Training Division chief and USACAT manager. "USACAT develops a more skilled and detailed aspect of food service."
The team has traditionally been the principal means of mentoring and developing young chefs.
Staff Sgt. Samantha Poe, has been a member of the USACAT since 2012.
During her time with the team, she has been able to find success thanks to continued educational and mentoring opportunities. Poe enjoys working with young Soldiers and being an example of what food service professionals are capable of.
"No one is going to do it for you," Poe said. "You have to put yourself out there. What's the worst thing that could happen? You fail. Ok. Train, learn, try again."
Poe explained how USACAT provides culinary training for Soldiers that builds skills and positive character traits.
"As Soldiers are trained at this type of level, and they get comfortable with these types of skills, you will see production go up, quality go up, which effects morale for every Soldier eating in dining facilities," she said. "And that will just keep growing and growing fast. I think opportunities like this are definitely undervalued. On the surface, it is hard to see those things instantly, but I see this as very valuable specifically for younger Soldiers who are classified as students."
Those students, through participating in programs like USACAT or continuing training throughout their careers at JCCoE, are able to better themselves and the dining facilities they work in. Those skills can be translated to better quality food and morale within those areas, supporting Soldiers mental and physical readiness through the food they eat.
For Poe, competitions like the Culinary Olympics allow her to step out of her usual responsibilities as an enlisted aide and provide her the opportunity to broaden her skills. During the event, she will focus on pastry.
"Events like this, push you to be better," she said. "It pushes you to never stop learning. It pushes you to try new things, get out of your comfort zone and just never settle. It keeps you on your toes."
With 15 years of experience and training in food service, Poe has gained skills that have earned her two trips to the Culinary Olympics, first in 2012 as an apprentice and this year as a primary team member. Most recently, she was the first military chef to win the AFC Nationals Pastry Chef of the Year.
Her culinary journey didn't begin with the Army though, having started in the civilian sector. But the military provided her with a path to follow her lifelong passion of being able to change a person's day with a single plate of food.
Feeding the military and making a difference has kept her motivated to continue to improve her skills through the Army and competitions.
"The benefit of the military, combined with the unique group that we get to serve, is something that means a lot to me," Poe said. "My husband is Infantry. I've seen firsthand how much these guys appreciate a meal, that feeling it brings forward. That is something unique from being in the civilian world, where you're just cooking for paying patrons. It is something that I love being able to do; my passion in life and serving my country. It's the best of both worlds."
Teammate Staff Sgt. Erica Melendres shares this sentiment, explaining serving her comrades is an important element of being sure the Army is ready to continue being America's force of decisive action.
"Now, we're focusing on being that ready Soldier through the total Soldier concept. A well balanced, nutritional diet is essential for optimal performance," she said. "The biggest thing we (food service professionals) are providing the Soldier is the right nutrition on a daily basis."
This year's appearance at the Culinary Olympics will be Melendres' first, but she has been a member of USACAT since 2016.
USACAT provides an opportunity to tell the Army's food service story, said Melendres, which she described as more than the stereotypical perception of cafeteria-style food.
"We are super focused on making sure our nutritionists are involved with how we run the dining facilities and how we're feeding [Soldiers]…" she said. "It is more about being able to show dining facility food doesn't have to be cut the bag open and steam it outright. Being able to show we have those same ingredients that are fresh and that our cooks are able to provide that for the Soldiers."
Like Poe, Melendes started her culinary career in the civilian sector before joining the Army a little over seven years ago. She serves as an enlisted aide but during the event, she will be the team's larder, responsible for butchering the fish and meat portions, and being a major part of finishing touches on plates.
Melendres is confident the team will be able to compete against the international teams, despite having very little time to prepare.
"We've definitely been thrown a lot of road bumps… but we love what we do as culinarians or chefs, and because of that we are always going to get it done," she said. "Especially in the Army. You're supposed to be there…Right now, we are 31 days out from the Olympics and we've brought our whole program 100 times better than what it was. You get the right minds together and you get the right kind of support from the commands - you can get things done."
Team captain Staff Sgt. Marc Susa said the team has been able to pull together in a positive way through physical training sessions as well as meetings to learn from each other. They've been able to create a menu and product they all can be proud of.
"We are a team. We learn from one another…," he said. "We have to work well together or the final product will suffer. If we don't work well or there is tension in the kitchen, it effects the dish. Judges will be able to see the disconnect between the elements, if we aren't all on the same page working toward the same goal of a quality product."
Each competition, like the Culinary Olympics, supports building a food service Soldiers' career through continuing education hours which count toward culinary certifications.
Susa, who also works as an enlisted aide, has a goal of one day earning the highest certification of Certified Master Chef, like his mentor.
When he joined the Army following 9/11 after time in the civilian culinary world, Susa never dreamed a decade of his military career would include being a USACAT member or winning awards like Military Master Chef of the Year 2018.
Susa learned from a young age that culinary arts is about showcasing passion and personality through food.
"My mother and grandmother are my inspiration. They have always been my biggest supports," he said. "As I was growing up, I was fortunate enough for them to be able to show me what good food tastes like."
According to Susa, his command is also supportive of his culinary arts career, including allowing him to dedicate some of his time to training and mentoring others.
The Soldiers working in food service are the inspiration for his service, Susa explained.
"I want to be able to share the same passion I have for creating food with Soldiers. I want to give back what was given to me when I was a young Soldier. Especially for me, to get to this level in our field, is a true blessing. I want to share that and encourage Soldiers so they can work hard to achieve high levels of success within food service."
Each of the USACAT members expressed their hopes of inspiring young students in food service that through professional development their careers can be ones of respect and passion.
"Culinary arts is more than just fine dining," Susa said. "Eating is more than just food on a plate. It is the flavor, the smell, the way the food looks; everything that we put into it. If we can channel that we can greatly elevate the Army dining experience. With the right training, food service Soldiers can go out there to the larger military community and hone their skills to make food that looks and tastes amazing."
The USACAT includes: Susa, Poe, Melendres and Staff Sgt. Justin Chase as primary members. Traveling with the team as apprentices are Staff Sgts. Kevin Arwood, Andrew Shurden, and Joseph Hale (U.S. Marine Corps); Culinary Specialist, Second Class Jeff Plotz (Coast Guard); Sergeant Symone Harden, Specialist Jasmine Calderon.