FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Jan. 25, 2023) -- With a steady hand and an eye for perfection, Pfc. Crystal Gordon practiced her culinary penmanship Jan. 23 at the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Center.
A piping bag filled with tempered chocolate served as her writing utensil as she carefully spelled out the words “Happy Birthday” on white, rectangular dessert plates. After inspecting her work, she wiped the plates clean, checked the temperature on the pot of melted chocolate, and began again.
Gordon said the trick is writing the cursive letters in a single, thin stroke with no overlap.
“It is definitely a skill I will keep practicing until I get it right,” she said. “You will see me doing this until I get it perfect.”
That’s the same mindset she had when she learned how to craft a piping bag out of parchment paper, careful to make every cut, bend, and fold precise so that she could control the flow of the chocolate. It’s small details like this that can distinguish a team, and earn them points, at the 47th Joint Culinary Training Exercise in March at Fort Lee, Virginia.
“We decided to make the piping bags out of paper, instead of using the plastic one, because it demonstrates a different kind of skill you can show the judges,” she said.
Sgt. David Wisbauer, Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team captain, said that judges will be looking for thin, consistent lines and an overall cleanliness of the plate.
“This is one of those skills that gets very tedious and frustrating for a chef,” he said. “After doing this over and over for a couple of hours, you don’t want to see chocolate for the rest of the day. But at the same time, you want to keep doing it because you’re going after perfection.”
Wisebauer said experiencing sheer exasperation in pursuit of excellence is like a rite of passage all chefs experience. Hours earlier, he and Sgt. Gianoah Miller, team manager, were brainstorming ideas for the team table display. Spc. Irving Stratton latched onto one of the suggestions and then spent an hour attempting to make caramel lace tuiles from an online how-to video.
It was not a gold medal first attempt, which irked Stratton, but Wisebauer pointed out what went right and what corrections to make the next time.
Writing in chocolate is one of the skills Gordon will be judged on during the Student Pastry Chef of the Year category. She also will have to make buttercream roses, segment an orange, decorate a cake border, and bake a dozen cookies, in addition to creating a hot plated dessert.
This is the first year this category makes an appearance at the annual competition, and Gordon said she is excited to represent the 10th Mountain Division as the student pastry chef. The novice baker also will exercise her skills as a member of the Student Chef Team, where she will be responsible for the dessert plate in the four-course meal.
“It’s a lot of hard work every day, but I’m also learning something new every day,” she said. “They say baking is a science, and it’s true because everything has to be measured exactly for it to come out perfect.”
While Gordon practiced her lettering, Pfc. Marlene Otero was on the opposite side of the kitchen working on a dessert plate for the Professional Pastry Chef of the Year category. A member of the Student Chef Team last year, Otero missed the current team tryouts because she was training at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence, Fort Lee.
Fortunately, when the team needed to fill a vacancy on the professional chef roster in December, Otero arrived with her culinary skills freshly honed after graduating from the Advanced Culinary Skills Training Course.
“I’m excited to be back on the team and to have another opportunity to participate in the competition,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to work on pastries, but I didn’t really have the experience to do that last year. So, I’m really glad that I have more experience now, and I have a chance to show what I’ve learned.”
Otero also will join the other professional chefs on the team in the Hot Food Kitchen category, where they will combine their skills to cook 50 portions of a buffet-style meal served from an Army Mobile Kitchen Trailer (MKT). Naturally, Otero will tackle the dessert course.
“I’ve never done this before, but I will be making baklava,” she said. “I’ve worked with phyllo dough before, when I was at the advanced culinary course. After completing that training, I feel a lot more confident in baking.”
She also has confidence that this year’s team has a lot of talent and potential for bringing gold medals home.
“I’m going for a gold medal this year as a personal goal, but the entire team is motivated to win,” Otero said. “The first time I walked back into the kitchen, I saw so much dedication in this team and all the hard work they are putting into their events. It definitely motivates me.”