By Terrance BellJanuary 29, 2020
FORT LEE, Va. -- Staff Sgt. Marc Paul Susa was built to overcome obstacles.
He was captain of the Fort Hood, Texas, culinary team that exceeded expectations and snatched the 2013 Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event title from several perennial favorites. It was Fort Hood's first culinary team of the year trophy in 20 years.
In 2018, he won the master's category - limited to those earning a silver medal or better in the Military Chef of the Year showdown - after being encouraged to compete "just for fun" one day prior to the event. Not only was he the victor, he earned a gold medal.
Now an enlisted aide for a four-star general, Susa brings his credentials and winning pedigree to a U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team that's set to compete in the 25th IKA Culinary Olympics, the world's largest international culinary event scheduled to take place Feb. 14-19 in Stuttgart, Germany.
The 10-member team, comprised of Soldiers and other members of the armed forces, are in training here until Feb. 2. USACAT members have logged only one prior practice session and will face competitors with extensive experience. The disadvantages are something, however, Susa chooses not to focus upon.
"Regardless of whether you are a seasoned veteran or new to the game, it's how hungry you are that's going to get you that win," he said.
Susa became team captain only three weeks ago, another drawback not necessarily working in the team's favor. However, he has been a USACAT team member since 2010 and is a two-time Olympian. He is confident his leadership can be a mitigating factor as the team moves forward.
"You could either be the thermometer or you can be the thermostat," he said. "If you are the thermometer, you're going to be up and down. Why not be the thermostat and set the tone for the team? Regardless of the lack of training or the number of obstacles you have to overcome, you set the tone and your team members will follow."
In year's past, the USACAT team members have competed in several categories during the event. This year, due to preparation time constraints, they will compete in only one: the military community event. It requires each team to prepare a multi-course meal for 120 guests in an upscale environment.
"It's sort of a buffet-catering style," Susa elaborated. "On top of that, we're required to do live action stations as far as cooking and serving the main items while the guests are coming through. That's something we don't normally do in dining facilities."
In preparation for the competition, Susa said the team has participated in various team-building activities. They hold physical training sessions daily and have become better acquainted with each other through social events such as bowling. Additionally, they have undergone exhaustive planning sessions prior to working in the kitchen.
"It's all about planning," Susa emphasized. "If it doesn't make sense on paper, a lot of times it doesn't make sense in the kitchen. So, we've done a lot of research and development, working with different products and consulting with our advisors and mentors."
During a kitchen session Friday, team members spent roughly 12 hours sorting menu items, taste-testing and preparing for an event run-through the following day. Menu items are based on the competitive category's theme, "Roots," which encourages the use of rooted vegetables.
"We plan to apply it to the different courses we are serving," Susa said. "We want to make sure our dishes are cohesive, one after the other. If it's not, then maybe we nix one or adjust the flavor profile so it doesn't overlap or linger in your mouth."
The USACAT menu includes Carolina barbecue pork belly with grits, a salad of goat cheese wrapped in butternut squash with baby mixed greens and blood orange vinaigrette, potato casserole and corn pudding. Short ribs, Red Snapper, mushroom strudel and a flourless chocolate beet cake round out the list.
Although USACAT team members are competing in only one event, it is nevertheless an exciting opportunity for those like Staff Sgt. Samantha Poe, a former Olympian and Senior Chef of the Year title-holder.
"I'm definitely excited," said the Fort Myer-based Soldier whose last Olympics was in 2012. "There's a lot more responsibility and a lot more pressure, but I'm happy the many years and hard work have come to fruition."
Poe was an apprentice in 2012. The increased pressure and responsibility come with being a primary member along with Susa and staff sergeants Erica Melendres and Justin Chase. Poe, like Susa, acknowledged the team is behind the learning curve, but is looking past such negatives.
"It's just a matter of perspective," she said. "Are you a glass half empty or half full? This is the situation, and there is nothing we can do to change it now. So, what are we going to do with it? Are we going to prove people right and fail, or are we going to prove people wrong and go and do the absolute best we can?"
Chase, also based in the Washington, D.C. area, is an engineer by military occupational specialty. His culinary skills, however, were enough to win last year's enlisted aide competition and to be considered a USACAT fill in. He said being a team member is quite a different experience.
"This is all new for me," said the former fine restaurant manager. "To be part of this elite team representing the U.S. and DOD is an out-of-the world thought ... I'm absolutely excited."
Chase paused to elaborate more on how he felt, explaining the elation is now a secondary emotion.
"I think now the excitement is kind of in the background and overshadowed by the need to be focused," he said. "If we are not focused, things fall out of place."
It is Susa's responsibility to make sure everyone has their eye on the ball. He said skill, desire and teamwork are critical factors, but one should not be dismissive of what can emerge from adversity.
"At the end of the day," he said, "if you're a really great chef, you know how to work around a kitchen. Regardless of how bad things are, if you can still put out good food and, well, good food is good food ... That's the great thing about our current situation. We know we can put out really great food. We acknowledge there are disadvantages, but that's what makes us stand out from the rest. We're prepared. We're prepared for the obstacles."
The remaining members of USACAT are Army staff sergeants Kevin Arwood and Andrew Shurden; Marine SSG Joseph Hale; Coast Guard Culinary Specialist Second Class Jeff Plotz; Army Sgt. Symone Harden; and Army Spc. Jasmine Calderon.
The team advisors are Sgt. 1st Class Sarah Perry and Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Derrick Davenport.