Members of the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team have spent countless hours, over the past several weeks, honing their skills while preparing and creating menus of exquisite cuisine for the annual Joint Culinary Training Exercise at Fort Lee, Virginia. (Photos by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)
Fort Drum chefs ready to test their skills at annual Joint Culinary Training Exercise
Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Feb. 28, 2020) – Doing more with less – that’s the situation the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team finds itself in this year.
The chefs who will head to the 45th annual Joint Culinary Training Exercise next week have the least amount of competitive cooking experience of any Fort Drum team in recent years. To compensate for that, they are doing more – more planning, more training, and more team and individual rehearsals of their menus.
“Every day there are at least two teams of chefs doing a complete run-through of their menus,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Sawatzke, team manager. “Most of the chefs are competing in multiple categories, so basically, someone is cooking something all the time.”
This has resulted in a team that exudes confidence in their skills and a camaraderie forged during countless hours over hot stoves and endless amounts of mise en place (that’s culinary speak for food preparation), not to mention all of the cleaning up afterward.
“We have done run-throughs with the brigade and battalion command teams, where the chefs performed exactly how they would in competition,” Sawatzke said. “I think that gave them a taste of what it will be like to cook for the judges.”
The more time they spend in the kitchen, the better these chefs become at time management – knowing what needs to be seared, broiled, baked and steamed, for how long and in what order so that they can perfectly plate a four-course menu within the time constraints of their event.
“They also become more familiar with the ingredients they will use, and all types of those ingredients, because they don’t know if what they cook with here will be the exactly the same when they go to the competition,” Sawatzke said.
It’s not uncommon for military culinary teams to lose experienced members because of training and deployment schedules, or changes to duty stations. Only Sgt. Joshua Hoyt, team captain, and Sgt. Keisha Morgan have competed previously at the annual event held at Fort Lee, Virginia.
Hoyt said that he hasn’t seen this many new competitors on a team roster before.
“Fortunately, everyone here is eager and willing to learn,” he said. “That can be a huge advantage. They’re learning everything fresh, and for the first time, so they also don’t have any of the bad habits that goes with that. Their ability to learn is just amazing – like sponges. I think we’re going to surprise some people at the competition.”
This will be Hoyt’s fourth year representing Fort Drum, and Morgan will return to the Professional Chef Team after earning a gold and a bronze medal last year. She will compete in the same two events this year – the Military Hot Food Kitchen and hors d’oeuvres for the team buffet table.
“I gained so much knowledge from having competed last year, I can definitely tell the difference it has made for me,” Morgan said. “Overall, I can see where my skills and food knowledge have improved, and I know what the judges are looking for.”
She said that a chef can plate what seems like a perfect plate of food, but when presented to a judge, every detail is scrutinized and the critique can be less than flattering. Yet the feedback itself is of tremendous value because the entire week is about becoming better chefs.
“We’re all cooks, and so we come into this thinking we know what to do,” Morgan said. “Then you see all the things that go into a fine dining menu – it’s much different than what we are used to doing. It is hard work, but it definitely pays off because it’s more than just cooking – it’s experiencing a whole different way of cooking.”
Weeks earlier, the team tackled the arduous task of preparing and laying out their cold food table display – one of seven mandatory categories to be considered for Culinary Team of the Year. The 20- by six-foot buffet table is filled with exquisite entrees, appetizers, desserts and a centerpiece to tie everything together.
The team’s buffet table has a regional farm-to-table theme that highlights local cuisine. Hoyt said that it was an all-out effort to cook, plate and decorate the table, and they completed it during a 24-hour session that left chefs feeling accomplished, if not exhausted. They will practice this one more time before the competition.
“The way our team is set up, every professional chef has a student chef working with them as an apprentice,” Hoyt said. “That way, when the student chefs advance to professional chef next year then they will have a better idea about what needs to be on the table.”
The Cold Food Table category is judged on criteria ranging from visual appeal, innovation and composition to craftsmanship and glazing technique.
Glazing with aspic is not something culinary specialists have much use for in the dining facility, where meals are eaten and not preserved for presentation. Aspic puts a photo-ready sheen over bowls of soup, artistically crafted plates of meats, fish and vegetables, hors d’oeuvres with sauces and garnish, and delectable bites of chocolates, pastries and cookies.
“It can be a little tricky, and that really is a big part of your score,” Morgan said. “If it’s too hot, it can affect the food on the plate. If it’s too cold, the gel will harden faster and mess everything up. You just have to learn how to work with it.”
Morgan said that when applied wrong, the aspic can hang off of pieces of food like gelatinous icicles or air bubbles will form on top. In a competition that puts a premium on presentation, these tiny deficiencies can seem gigantic to culinarians.
“The product that you cook could come out great, but that won’t matter if you don’t aspic it properly,” she said. “Everything on the plate has to look clean.”
During one practice, Spc. Enoch Sales rotated from one table where he was rolling out colorful slabs of fondant, to a work station where he practiced creating balloons out of rolled sugar under a heat lamp. In addition to vying for Pastry Chef of the Year, Sales is part of the Military Hot Food Kitchen team and is responsible for two categories on the team buffet table.
Sales said he’ll work late into the days and through the weekends just to get the extra time and space to work on his plates.
“It’s a lot to do, but I wanted to challenge myself,” Sales said. “Personally, I like to be challenged. It’s just really getting a different experience than what I am used to.”
That’s the lure of any military culinary arts team – getting to elevate one’s cooking abilities and moving away from serving a good meal to hundreds of Soldiers to presenting one perfect plate of food to internationally accredited judges with cultivated palates.
“There’s more to cooking than what we see on those TV food shows,” Sales said. “All the menu planning and mental preparations, coming up with good flavors – I mean, I didn’t have to think about this before.”
Along the way, he’s expanding his food knowledge in ways he never thought possible. Sales said that he didn’t realize the science behind tempering chocolate or how a particular alcohol could enhance the flavor profile of a recipe. Even as the competition draws near, he’s still learning every day.
“Time is my enemy right now, because I don’t have much of it left,” he said. “Sometimes at the end of the day, I wonder ‘why am I doing this?’ It’s for the experience. It has opened my mind so much to what I can do, things that I had little experience with before.”
The Pastry Chef of the Year event requires military chefs to prepare four portions of a cold plated dessert with 10 minutes to prep, 90 minutes to cook and plate, and 10 minutes to serve. Sales has been working on a chocolate mousse with passion fruit curd, garnished with berries and a raspberry sauce.
In the second phase of the event, competitors have two hours to bake and decorate a one-tier cake.
The theme of this event is “Celebration of Dr. Seuss,” which explains why Sales is working with a lot of vibrant colors. He said that patisserie is not generally practiced by culinary specialists in the dining facility, so his education into pastries and sweets is fairly recent.
“I actually don’t have a baking background – it’s all brand new to me,” he said. “Last year was my introduction to baking, literally from scratch, by following some basic Army recipe cards.”
In all, Sales is responsible for 13 plated desserts.
“Pretty much, I figure I will have something to do every day at the competition,” he said. “It’s really just amazing how we were able to condense years of training into the last three months. It was overwhelming at first, but I’ve had help from other team members and my mentor.”
Pfc. Jonathan Arendale will compete for Student Chef of the Year. He has spent more hours in the kitchen than he can recollect.
“I feel ready for it,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, working it out in my head. I’m never not thinking about it. I’ve learned a lot being with the team.”
Arendale worked in the food service industry before enlisting in the Army, and he said that he wanted to join the Culinary Arts Team to elevate his techniques.
“I just want to go as high as I can in this (career field),” he said. “I’ve always been interested in culinary and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
In addition to practicing his Student Chef of the Year menu, Arendale works with three other culinarians on the Student Team Skills event.
“I’ve never met any of the people on the team before, so that was the first challenge,” he said. “It’s a team effort, and they’re all good people with different personalities. It’s like we all had a short amount of time to figure out how we were going to work together.”
The Student Team Skills is a two-phase, relay-style event. Each chef on the four-member team performs a different skill, such as de-boning a chicken or demonstrating different knife cuts on produce, within 80 minutes. Then the team enters the cooking phase and is tasked with producing a four-course regionally inspired signature meal with a fish starter course, a salad, the main course and a dessert.
During a recent practice, Pfc. Kenny Driscoll had the tedious task of performing the classical cuts. This is the most time-consuming of the skills and one where the judges pay the most attention at the competition. They scrutinize the size and uniformity of every slice of carrot, diced onion, fricasseed tomato and every side of a potato cut tournee-style.
“I’m pretty sure this is the skill no one wants to be judged on,” Driscoll said. “I wouldn’t choose it for myself.”
But he did choose to try out for the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team.
“I wanted a chance to cook something different than what I am used to at the DFAC,” Driscoll said. “I want to learn more about the culinary industry, and I’ve learned a lot being on the team.”
Speaking of tedium, Sgt. Comlan Sedjro spent several minutes carefully plucking fresh thyme leaves from its stems until he had a tiny plastic cup mostly filled. Sedjro was prepping for a rehearsal of the Nutrition Hot Food Challenge, and he said that if a judge found any piece other than the small leaves in the cup, then it would cost him points at the competition.
Sedjro and Sgt. Kishroy Robinson also spent time mixing batch after batch of oil, water and flour, trying to get the right consistency, shape and color for a coral crisp to garnish one of their plates. It would have been easier to bake a mozzarella crisp, but because everything on their menu is assessed on its nutritional formulation and correct use of salts, fats and sugars, those extra calories would have cost them.
Arendale is also serving as apprentice to Hoyt during the Professional Chef of the Year category. This is a mystery basket event where competitors have no idea what ingredients they will have to cook a four-course meal for four.
During Hoyt’s last rehearsal, it was a wild game mystery basket. He came up with an octopus pasta appetizer; a turtle and frog leg soup; an elk, boar and rabbit platter for entrée; followed by a chocolate mousse with a flax seed sponge cake and pina colada sorbet as dessert. And this is just a simplified description of the menu he devised, minus some of the accompanying sauces and sides.
Hoyt said he is comfortable with cooking any protein – maybe not tripe, he admitted – but it is usually one or two little items in the basket that will mess with a menu. During one rehearsal it was a simple spud that Hoyt had difficulty finding purpose for on his plate.
“These little baby purple-skinned potatoes – there really wasn’t much I could do with them in my menu,” he said. “It’s those homely, simple ingredients – how can you elevate that, how can you turn it into something better? That’s the challenge with a mystery basket. You have to find a use for every ingredient in there. You’re trying to transform those things and showcase them in the best way you can.”
He has competed in this event a few times before, so Hoyt said it is best to have a plan going into the kitchen that is versatile enough to accommodate any of the ingredients he may find.
“That’s the key to success in this category,” he said. “I know if they give me chocolate, it’s going into my dessert. Whatever muscle meat I get is going into my entrée. I know that fruits will be split up between my dessert and salad. If I go in with a preset menu, knowing these things, then that takes out some of the guessing.”
Hoyt said that it has been a pleasure watching the team bond over the course of months.
“Our student chefs gelled really well, and their individual skills complement each other nicely,” he said. “I know the professional chefs have wanted a chance to go for a long time, but they just never had the opportunity until now. I’ve known most of them for a long time, and I know they’re ready.”
Members of this year’s Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team are as follows:
* Sgt. Joshua Hoyt, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team;
* Sgt. Keisha Morgan, 593rd Quartermaster Company, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade;
* Sgt. Kishroy Robinson, 593rd Quartermaster Company, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade;
* Sgt. Comlan Sedjro, 593rd Quartermaster Company, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade; and
* Spc. Enoch Sales, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 10th Brigade Support Battalion.
* Pfc. Jonathan Arendale, 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team;
* Pfc. Chancelor Douglas, 593rd Quartermaster Company, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade;
* Pfc. Joanna Delacruz, 1st Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team;
* Pfc. Kenny Driscoll, 41st Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team; and
* Pfc. Victoria Espinoza, 593rd Quartermaster Company, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade.
Team Captain: Sgt. Joshua Hoyt
Team Manager: Jeremiah Sawatzke
The Joint Culinary Training Exercise, the largest military culinary event in North America, is sanctioned by the American Culinary Federation. For more information about the event, and for updates during the competition, visit www.facebook.com/army.culinary. ⚠To learn more about the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Program, visit https://www.facebook.com/FortDrumCulinaryArts/. ⚠
⚠ = Link to a nongovernmental site. IMCOM is not responsible for the content of links outside of home.army.mil.