The smells and sounds of specialty meals being prepared brought the Division Culinary Lab kitchen to life March 18 as two of Bastogne’s very own vied for their chance at becoming Fort Campbell’s Chef of the Quarter.
Private First Class Rafael Robert, culinary specialist assigned to 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), and Sgt. D’sean Wright, culinary specialist assigned to 326th Brigade Engineer Battalion 1st BCT, competed against chefs from across Bastogne and won, earning them the title of brigade Junior and Senior Chef of the Quarter, respectively.
Winning against the entire brigade allowed these two Soldiers to advance to the next level of competition, against chefs from across the installation. Wright said he is no stranger to these competitions but winning caught him off guard.
“I’m surprised that I actually placed first,” he said. “I’ve been to a few cook of the quarter boards, but this is the first one where I’ve placed first within the brigade. I’m still kind of in shock. It felt good.”
For the competition, each contestant had to prepare a three-course meal using items from a mystery basket. Each dish was scored by a culinary expert on a panel of judges.
For his meal, Wright’s menu included pan-fried fish as an appetizer, steak kabobs and potatoes as the main dish, and a caramelized pear for dessert. He said it was his effort that sets his food apart from the rest.
“I genuinely hope that they enjoy the final product,” Wright said. “Every time I cook with the Soldiers, I tell them not to just throw something together. Make sure that you take your time, you’re patient with it and you’re actually putting love into your product. I feel like if you care about the product while you’re cooking it, it will taste a lot better in the end.”
Wright said his Family’s closeness is what inspires him while he cooks. When eating with his Family, he always felt the emotion tied to the meal.
“Being brought up in a close-knit Family where we did eat together a lot, the meals would come out so good and everybody enjoyed seeing how a few hours for a meal would bring people close together,” he said. “Every time I cook, I look forward to peoples’ reactions and the moments that we can share from something that I was able to put together for them.”
With his mystery box items Robert prepared some Family favorites. His menu included a tomato and onion salad and shrimp chowder appetizer, pan-seared chicken and diced potatoes for the main course, and a strawberry smoothie for dessert.
“Every time I go home my mom likes to dice some potatoes and make some chicken, so I felt comfortable to throw that in there,” he said. “My younger sister is always making smoothies at the house for her daughter, so I was like ‘let me just make one of those smoothies’.”
Robert joined the Army at 34 and came in with about 16 years of cooking experience from working in restaurants and bars. He said being in the kitchen cooking is what he loves, so when he is preparing a meal he’s in the zone.
“I’m at peace,” Robert said. “I don’t think about anything else that’s around, I just focus on what I’m doing at that moment.”
Robert was nervous about advancing in the competition, he said, but feels confident in himself and his performance.
“After I’ve done all my cooking, regardless of the outcome, I think I did great,” Robert said. “There are some really good cooks out there, but if somebody beats me they have to be really, really good.”
Following the cooking competition, the chefs will participate in a knowledge board. Scores will be combined to determine the winner, and that Soldier will represent the 101st in the Chef of the Year competition later this year. Robert said he would love the chance to prove himself at that level.
“It would be great representing everybody on Fort Campbell,” he said. “I’ll have to get back to my cookbooks and everything I have at home and try to figure something out that’ll be breathtaking.”