FORT DRUM, N.Y. (March 1, 2022) -- A team of student chefs recently were cooking against the clock at the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Center. With a two-hour window to prep, cook and plate a four-course menu, the Soldiers weren’t panicking.
Actually, two of them were singing.
“Don’t worry … about a thing … ‘cause every little thing … gonna be alright.”
Better cooks than singers, to be sure, the Fort Drum Student Chef Team finished better than just “alright,” as Bob Marley intoned in his song “Three Little Birds.” In fact, the student chefs received high praise from the 10th Mountain Division G-4 staff who critiqued the team’s fish appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert.
In preparation for the 46th Joint Culinary Training Exercise at Fort Lee, Virginia, members of the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team have been honing their skills and techniques to make food worthy of any fine-dining restaurant.
Spc. Frederic Benson is responsible for making the dessert on the Student Chef Team. A year ago, he said his baking experience was limited to cookies. Today he knows how to make different pastry creams, a white chocolate mousse and the right way to adjust the heat while making a lemon curd.
“Now it’s simple to me,” Benson said.
Benson can rattle off a recipe and instructions as conversationally as someone talking about their summer vacation.
“I could remember my cake recipe by Day 3,” he said. “If you know your recipe and all the components that go onto the plate, you’ll be good. But if you miss any component, then that is major points taken off.”
Benson, a culinary specialist with 1st Brigade Combat Team, won a Chef of the Quarter Board last year, which made him a candidate for the Student Chef Team. He credits his former mentor, Sgt. Jonathan Arendale, for helping him prepare for that challenge. Arendale was a member of the Fort Drum Student Chef Team that won at Fort Lee in 2020, and they proceeded to earn third place at American Culinary Federation Nationals in 2021.
“He would bring me in from time to time to show me knife cuts and how to cook certain meats,” Benson said. “And I used to watch the team he was on, and see the chemistry they had while cooking. On my off-time, Sgt. Arendale would teach me at his house. He’d show me how to fabricate a chicken, a duck, and how to cook it, or how to fillet a fish.”
Arendale showed him how to make gnocchi, which amazed Benson that you can make a pasta dish out of potatoes. As much as he absorbed these lessons voraciously, Benson said that he also wants to help other culinary specialists build their culinary repertoire.
“I don’t know everything, but I share what knowledge I have if I see someone who needs help,” he said. “Whatever it is they are working on, if I can help I will.”
Benson was 19 and had just graduated high school when he enlisted in the Army in 2020. To go from serving tables at a chain restaurant to participating in the largest military culinary competition in the country is something he wouldn’t have imagined years ago.
“I’ve been working since I was 16,” he said. “I thought cooking in the Army wouldn’t be bad because I’m no stranger to hard work. I like to cook, and I like to learn, so I felt that if I joined the Army to cook then I might as well learn everything I can about cooking.”
Benson also serves as apprentice to Spc. Jennifer Payan, who is competing in the Pastry Chef of the Year category. This extra duty also gives Benson an opportunity to gain additional knowledge that has helped him when working on the dessert for the Student Chef Team menu.
“Baking is all about precision and exact measurements, and they say it is a science,” he said. “It has been challenging at times, but I get through it with some motivation.”
The culinary specialists also take time to challenge themselves in the kitchen.
“I baked a pound cake yesterday, just because,” Benson said. “One day we were all in the kitchen just working on our craft. I said I wanted to bake a pound cake and see how far I can take it, because I already baked a pistachio cake 20 times before so I tried something new. I baked the pound cake, threw some honey glaze on it. They ate it all.”
Sgt. Jodi Palmer, team captain, said Benson had the same results when he made ice cream the first time.
“It was so good – the texture, the taste – everything was good,” she said. “Even better than a ready-made ice cream.”
“I even wrote the recipe down, just for my own knowledge,” Benson added. “Doing this job, you can develop a menu for yourself when you go home. That’s how much I’ve learned here.”
Palmer said that Benson is passionate about cooking.
“There are days when it can be very overwhelming and intense,” she said. “Because he has that passion, Benson is willing to work even harder. And you always see him with his notebook, taking notes. I say, what are you writing? And it is always how he is going to make something better.”
As the team members developed their individual skills, they also developed a battle rhythm in the kitchen. Benson said time management – the synchronization so each course is prepared, plated and served at the right time – was a team skill they developed, along with kitchen etiquette.
“We had to learn how to maneuver around the kitchen, because we all share the same stove,” he said. “If you know the pastry needs one burner and the entrée needs three, but something needs to be boiled for the salad, then you have to time it just so where everything gets done.”
Benson said that the team got in synch by practicing the entire menu over and over until everything they did was practically muscle memory.
“The chemistry on this team is good,” he said. “At first nobody knows anyone, and you try to learn how everybody works. Week after week, you see how we come together as a team. You just have to trust the process. Now we know how to work together really well. I believe when it is time for us to go to Fort Lee, we will be more than ready. I believe we are going to be elite.”
Pfc. Marlene Otero is another member of the Student Chef Team. Two weeks after joining, she learned that she would also represent Fort Drum in the Student Chef of the Year category. The event is for culinary specialists with less than two years of work experience, and it tests their understanding of cooking fundamentals – meaning, basic level skills correctly executed.
“I feel honored that I was chosen to be the captain of the Student Chef Team, and to compete for Student Chef of the Year,” Otero said. “I’ve definitely grown as a culinary specialist. I’ve learned the importance of teamwork, learning how everything works in the kitchen and how to put together a meal.”
She found that balancing responsibilities in two categories requires additional focus and attention to details.
“It definitely gets me confused once in a while,” Otero said. “Like when I am unconsciously mise en placing the entrée for the student team when I should be doing the mise en place for my plate. But with everything that has been happening, I definitely see this as a learning experience.”
Since she hasn’t worked with any of the other student chefs before, Otero said they had to build cohesion and kitchen camaraderie while learning how to execute a four-course menu from scratch.
“We bonded with the same purpose and same mission, so everything we do is what is best for the team,” she said.
Otero said she appreciates the chance to test her culinary capabilities and venture into fine dining territory. It can be an eye-opening experience going from food preparation in dining facilities where hundreds of Soldiers are served at a time, to perfecting one plate for a judge with a most discerning palate and years of experience that exceeds the young chef’s age.
“We’ve all learned a lot and I definitely see the improvements we have all made,” she said. “Whatever happens, we’re going to try our best.”
The following 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers will represent Fort Drum on the Student Chef 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.
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.