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Above left: Spc. Stephania Gateau will represent the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team in the Student Chef of the Year category at the 47th Joint Culinary Training Exercise, March 4-10, Fort Lee, Virginia. She also serves as captain for the Student Chef Team. Above right: Pvt. Diego Rios, left, a first-year member of the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team, works with his peers during a rehearsal of the Student Chef Team menu in preparation for the 47th Joint Culinary Training Exercise, March 4-10, Fort Lee, Virginia. (Photos by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)

Fort Drum student chefs aim to be serious contenders at culinary arts competition

Mike Strasser

Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Feb. 27, 2023) – There’s always a flurry of activity inside the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Center.

Members of the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team busy themselves cooking up gastronomic wonders, carving mounds of fondant into creative masterpieces for a table centerpiece, making large quantities of stocks or simmering a pot of pig’s parts to make head cheese.

For a couple of hours one February morning, Spc. Stephania Gateau, the Student Chef of the Year representative, had a kitchen station all to herself as she practiced her menu for the 47th annual Joint Training Exercise in March at Fort Lee, Virginia.

Chopping, dicing, stirring, and saucing – the look on her face throughout was of singular focus on the food she was preparing and determination to put perfection on the plates.

Soldiers passing by with their grab-and-go meals might describe it as fierce or perhaps stoic at times.

“People say I look mad. I hear that a lot,” she said. “If you don’t know me at all and only see me in the work environment, that’s just how I look. But I’m not even mad. I’m all about the cooking.”

Only when she is finished plating and her food is tasted and critiqued does her expression soften and she cracks a smile. Later, joking with team members away from the work station, Gateau completely shatters the illusion of the stern chef.

“I think I’m a lot of fun,” she said. “I like to laugh; I like to play music and hang out with my friends. But in a work environment, I cook. Maybe I should smile more.”

The fact of the matter, Gateau said, is that every day she gets to cook at Fort Drum is a good day.

“This is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I enlisted as a cook in the Army,” she said. “When I came to Fort Drum as a new junior enlisted Soldier, I went to my company, and I learned how to work at a dining facility. Some days you hate it, some days you love it. For me, this is a chance every day to do what I love.”

Gateau said it was an honor when her first sergeant chose her as the Chef of the Quarter representative in 2021, which involved both a cooking demonstration and a board appearance. Unfamiliar with the latter, she failed to impress the panel of noncommissioned officers. Undeterred, Gateau continued to cook and study so she was prepared for the next opportunity.

In 2022, she won both Chef of the Quarter for her battalion and Chef of the Year at the brigade level, which secured her spot on the culinary team.

“I liked the rush I got from competing,” Gateau said. “I have a competitive spirit for cooking, so it means a lot for me to be on this team. Long before I got to this point, people were telling me that I would make it on this team. Now I have to live up to what is expected of me.”

Gateau said that time management is most important in competitive cooking. Knowing what to do every minute allotted and rehearsing each step in the process can alleviate some of the pressure placed on the chef.

“If you don’t have a plan all the way through, from the mise en place to the plating, then it can get confusing,” she said. “At some point in the cooking, you’re going to be stressed – it always happens to me. If there are five things that need to get done at the same time, and I have a plan, then I know step-by-step how I can do that.”

That strategy also applies to the Student Chef Team, which Gateau captains. Often standing with clipboard in hand and her “not angry but really serious” countenance, she helps keep the four other chefs working in synch. For Gateau, the team category is just as important to her as the individual category.

“The team works really well together, and it’s fun because I get to watch them work and help them get the food out on time,” she said. “Sometimes I feel I like that more than working by myself. Because when we get together and everything comes out perfect, and it’s like ‘We did this’ – that is a great feeling.”

Gateau also feels the Student Chef Team has the potential to earn a gold medal at Fort Lee.

“Everything I have seen with this team, and what I’ve seen and heard from past competitions, I feel we have a real shot at winning,” she said.

Another member of the team, Pvt. Diego Rios, also believes the student chef team will stand out among the other teams during the competition.

“Of course, I am anxious about competing at Fort Lee. But if we can get over our nerves, show complete confidence and remember our training, we are more than capable of achieving a gold medal,” he said.

Rios did not have any culinary experience before he enlisted in the Army, but he said he took interest in the profession at an early age and looked forward to learning more about the food industry.

“I just love when you can make others happy by making a great-tasting meal,” he said. “Good food really does boost morale.”

It was while learning his craft during advanced individual training at Fort Lee when Rios learned about the culinary arts event, and how Soldiers can try out for the teams.

“After I familiarized myself in garrison, I yearned for more knowledge about cooking,” he said. “The culinary team is an excellent choice to learn more skills and techniques. I like to describe myself as always hungry for more, and I love learning about everything culinary – from new recipes to plating techniques.”

Rios said that being a member of the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team has already been a rewarding experience, just from the depth of knowledge gained from skills training.

“The Student Chef Team has, naturally as time progresses, greatly improved through constant practice,” he said. “Our timeliness, quality of our dishes and bond with each other has also improved over time.”

Although he describes himself as one of the quieter chefs and not as outgoing as others, Rios said he appreciates the fellowship and teamwork among his peers.

“Being a part of this team really shows how important communication is – knowing each member of the team when working in a tight space with limited time,” he said. “It’s something that can build character and expand our skills set in the future.”

The 47th Joint Culinary Training Exercise is scheduled March 4-10 at Fort Lee, with more than 200 military chefs from around the world and across all branches of service participating in the largest military culinary competition in the U.S. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/army.culinary.

To see more photos of the Fort Drum chefs in training, visit www.flickr.com/photos/drum10thmountain/albums/72177720304638783. 

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Spc. Stephania Gateau, left, gathers the Fort Drum Student Chef Team together before they rehearse their menu at the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Center. (Photo by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)