It takes a lot of time, experience and talent to serve an impeccably prepared world-class meal to a table of four, but it’s another thing to use fine culinary techniques when feeding a mess hall full of hundreds of military service members.
But as 32 members of the armed forces learned last week at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, there’s no need to sacrifice quality for quantity.
During a week-long Armed Forces Forum for Culinary Excellence put on by the CIA and the National Restaurant Association, the brightest stars in the military’s food service units learned everything from the art of poaching to the right and wrong ways to crack an egg.
“We mostly train for large quantities, and here it’s more about technical quality,” said Gunnery Sgt. Nelson Shippee, who works for a three-star general at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.
Each branch of the military holds an annual competition to honor the most talented members of their food service units. The military performs the first few layers of review, then partners with the National Restaurant Association (NRA) and other industry groups to determine “the best of the best,” said Jack Kleckner of the NRA’s Military Foundation.
The foundation sponsors CIA training for honorees, who are mostly from the Air Force and Marine Corps, with a few members of the Navy. The Navy, Army and Merchant Marines have a separate program to honor their food service personnel.
The program improves the quality of the food served in mess halls around the world, while providing military cooks and chefs with advanced skills that will help them land good jobs in the restaurant industry when they leave the service, said Kleckner.
“This program helps individuals decide whether they want to stay in the military in food service, and if they’re looking to get out they know there are careers waiting for them,” said Chief Master Sgt. Ed Walden of the U.S. Air Force.
“We started out with flavor dynamics, teaching them flavor profiles of different cuisines,” CIA chef instructor Almir Da Fonseca said Thursday. “We moved into different cooking techniques, from sautéing to roasting, and today we’re doing grilling and broiling.”
Participants have all worked in food service, so they have basic proficiency in the kitchen, Da Fonseca said. Many of them are quite talented, with bright futures ahead of them in the culinary world outside the military, he said.
“The industry can always use hard-working, qualified people like this,” he said.
“The training is really phenomenal, but beyond that it inspires the Marines,” said Lt. Col. Richard Kohler. As director of the Marine Corps’ Food Service and Subsistence Program, Kohler’s responsible for feeding roughly 186,000 Marines stationed around the world.
“Working in mess halls, we cook hundreds of batches, hundreds of steaks, hundreds of everything,” Kohler said. “But there’s so much more to this industry than just institutionalized cooking. We’re hoping that not only will this inspire them to continue with their culinary skills, but also to take some of that passion back to wherever they’re stationed and inspire others as well.”
Kohler had especially high praise for Marine Cpl. Dijon Terry, who like Shippee has been tapped by a high-ranking general.
“It’s been a great opportunity for me to be here,” said Terry as he cut up apples for a caramel apple empanada.
He said he’s enjoyed learning “the art of leftovers — how to make a meal, and then turn around and use that food to make a completely different meal. That was a big surprise to me.”
Staff Sgt. Travis Keele of the Air Force said he’s learned a variety of simple techniques that he hadn’t given much thought to before: peeling tomatoes properly, using leftovers effectively, and perfecting cooking skills like braising, grilling and deep frying.
“I thought I knew how to cook, but I’ve realized that there’s a lot more to it than what I’ve experienced,” said Keele, who’s been working with food since he started as a busboy at the age of 16.
A nine-year veteran of the Air Force, Keele plans to work in the hospitality industry when he leaves the military, and he said the skills he’s learned at the CIA will come in handy. “I won’t be looking for a job — I’ll be looking for a career,” he said.
Like other participants, Airman 1st Class Maria Stansberry said she was happy to learn so many practical skills that she can use when she returns to Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
For example, she learned to crack an egg on a flat surface like a counter. That’s safer than the common method of cracking it on the lid of a bowl, which can push salmonella bacteria lurking on the outside of the shell into the egg.
“I’ve been cracking eggs the wrong way my entire life,” she said with a laugh.
Not all of this year’s food service honorees were able to make it to the CIA. On Thursday morning, Marine Cpl. Daniel Russo received one of the Food Service Specialist of the Year awards via Skype because he’s stationed in Afghanistan.
According to the NRA, more than 250,000 military veterans work in the restaurant industry, and another 25,000 jobs should become available in the next five years.