FORT DRUM, N.Y. (March 1, 2022) -- Sgt. Jodi Palmer, Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team captain, doesn’t eat pork. But after seeing how Spc. Alexander Combs presented it on his plate in such an appealing way, she had second thoughts.
“I’m very tempted to try it,” she said. “Overall it is a great plate. Combs can really think on the spot.”
Thinking on the spot is almost a required skill for a chef competing in the Armed Forces Chef of the Year category during the 46th Joint Culinary Training Exercise, March 2-11, at Fort Lee, Virginia.
It is a mystery basket-style event, so Combs won’t know exactly what he has to cook with until the competition starts. That might seem daunting to a culinary specialist who has only begun cooking four-course menus several weeks ago, but Combs said he is thrilled by the challenge.
“I love this concept,” he said. “I get to learn something new every time. I may get a brand new meat I’ve never cooked with before, and I have three hours to figure out how to put it on a plate. For me, that’s a huge learning adventure, and I love it.”
In his practice mystery baskets, Combs has cooked with pork tenderloin, scallops, whole fish, squid, oysters and chicken, to name a few.
“I’m hoping to get rack of lamb,” he said. “I’ve eaten it before, but never cooked it. That’s one of those meats that professional chefs often work with, so I would love to experiment with it.”
The event requires a chef to prepare and present four portions of a four-course meal consisting of a hot appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert. The chefs are given 30 minutes to brainstorm a menu, and then three-and-a-half hours to cook, plate and serve to the judges.
Combs has proven to excel with time management, and each time he has practiced a menu it has been served with ample time to spare.
“I always want to be early than late, so I push myself to get everything done as fast as I can,” he said. “Then I can work on some detail or something, knowing I have the time.”
This is also his first time working alongside an apprentice. Apprentices are limited in how they can assist a chef. They can retrieve ingredients from the pantry, help with the mise en place – or prep work – before the cooking begins, and maintain cleanliness in the work station. Apprentices can’t do any of the cooking, but they need to know the recipes and cooking sequences to anticipate what the chef may need.
“It is a bit of a teeter-totter process, because I am supposed to be teaching Pfc. (Peyton) Piver what I am doing, while I am doing it,” he said. “But at the same time, when I am in the middle of cooking a four-course menu, I don’t always have the time to explain everything that is going on at the moment.”
Combs won the title of Fort Drum Junior Chef of the Year to earn his spot on the Culinary Arts Team.
“I did a lot of the Chef of the Quarter boards to work my way up to Junior Chef of the Year,” he said. “Competing against dozens of other people and to come out on top was a big feat for me. I didn’t win the first few times I tried, but I came back and finally won.”
Combs said that most of his cooking experience has been in the Army, but his appreciation for food service started at home.
“Growing up in a house where there were so many of us – eight siblings – my mom was so busy she never got to eat. She would always be cooking mass amounts of food, but never for herself.”
Combs said that when this would happen, he would either share his food with her or make something else for her to eat.
“That really was the first time I got into the mindset of cooking for others,” he said.
Palmer, assigned to 3rd Combat Brigade Team, 10th Mountain Division (LI), at Fort Polk, Louisiana, arrived at Fort Drum not knowing any of the other chefs, nor had she expected to be named team captain.
“Most of us were not acquainted with each other before – we are from different brigades, different units – and we were selected by our leaders to be on this team,” she said. “So when we got here, we had to see how we can best work together. And we worked, and we worked and worked until we can almost read each other’s minds. We’ve developed a cohesion where we know what another chef needs without them asking. Honestly, that makes a team excellent. We are like one.”
Actually, the word that she said best describes this group of culinary specialists is family.
“We’re one family,” she said. “We may be from different units, different age groups and different backgrounds, but still a family.”
Just a day earlier, Palmer looked disapprovingly – like a mom – at the group of student chefs who were neglecting their duties to huddle around Spc. Jennifer Payan, the Pastry Chef of the Year competitor, who was practicing her apple brown sugar tart.
“They were there to cheer her on,” she said. “You know, that’s what family does – they look out for one another.”
Palmer has been in the Army culinary profession for six years, and she has a teaching background, which helps in her position as team manager. She encouraged team members to embrace a team mentality throughout the training.
“For any team to be successful, you have to have teamwork. It doesn’t matter what skills a chef has, because we all have skills and expertise in different areas, but if you can’t work with a team, then you will be just as defeated as if you don’t have any skills at all.”
Along with Cpl. Christopher Ramirez, from 1st Brigade Combat Team, Palmer will compete in the Nutritional Hot Food Challenge category. This event requires chefs to work with a registered dietitian to create a healthy four-course menu that follows strict nutritional guidelines.
“Naturally, I like to cook and work with food,” she said. “It is a great honor to be part of this team and I am really proud of this team. In my mind, they have already won because of how they have developed their craft in such a short time.”
The Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team includes a team captain, team manager, five student chefs and five professional chefs. Additionally, six alternates were selected to assist with the centerpiece for the team’s table display, and to fill in for any team members with conflicting obligations.
The following Soldiers will represent the 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum at the 46th Joint Culinary Training Exercise:
*Sgt. Jodi Palmer, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, team captain, and Sgt. Gianoah Miller, team manager, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade.
*Cpl. Christopher Ramirez, 1st Brigade Combat Team; Spc. Jennifer Payan, 2nd Brigade Combat Team; Spc. Debelin James, 1st Brigade Combat Team; Spc. Alexander Combs, 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
*Spc. Frederic Benson, 1st Brigade Combat Team; Pfc. Marlene Otero, 2nd Brigade Combat Team; Pfc. Irwin Sharpe, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade; Pfc. Peyton Piver, 1st Brigade Combat Team; and Pvt. Ingrid Clemente, 1st Brigade Combat Team.
*Spc. Tiffany Francis, 3rd Brigade Combat Team; Pfc. Alex Bagnasco Alvarez, 1st Brigade Combat Team; Pfc. Thomas Hubbell, 2nd Brigade Combat Team; Pfc. Wyatt Vaughn, 2nd Brigade Combat Team; Pfc. Alexander Alvarez, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade; and Pvt. Javier Rivera, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade.
Photos of the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team are available at www.flickr.com/photos/drum10thmountain/albums/with/72177720297020993.
To learn more about the Joint Culinary Training Exercise, visit https://quartermaster.army.mil/jccoe/Special_Programs_Directorate/Culinary_Arts/Culinary_Arts_main.html.