Photo By Michael Strasser | Culinary specialists from across the 10th Mountain Division (LI) put their best food forward and demonstrated their skills during the tryouts Dec. 13-14 for the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team. (Photo by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs) see less | View Image Page
FORT DRUM, NY, UNITED STATES
Story by Michael Strasser
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Dec. 19, 2018) — The Fort Drum Culinary Arts Center was eerily quiet on Dec. 13, despite all of the work being done by culinary specialists.
It was the first day of tryouts for the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team, this one specifically for the student chefs, and the Soldiers were laser-focused on their knife cuts. Staff Sgt. Evin Galbreath, team captain, and Sgt. Maileny Frett, team manager, occasionally broke the silence when they exchanged comments while judging the candidates.
“Student chefs are Soldiers who have less than two years of cooking experience,” Galbreath said. “We are looking for Soldiers who can show us an ability to cook at a certain level of proficiency, but also a desire to learn and improve.”
The prospective student chefs had already demonstrated they could fabricate a chicken – a basic culinary skill that includes removing the wings and wishbone, separating the leg and thigh, and leaving only the scantest of meat on the carcass. Now they were into the classical cuts – julienne, small dice and tourne – on vegetables that would be critiqued on size, uniformity and amount of waste.
Galbreath said that the Soldiers should be familiar with these cuts at their dining facilities, with the exception being the tourne. This is a classic French technique of peeling root vegetables into oblong, seven-sided shapes similar to a football.
The tryouts ended with one cooking challenge – a pastry cream.
“This is not particularly difficult, but at the same time it isn’t easy, either,” Galbreath said. “It falls somewhere in between. If they can knock out a good pastry cream, then they can pretty much do anything we need them to do.”
Eleven Soldiers tried out for the student chef team, but only five are authorized to compete in March at the Joint Culinary Training Exercise at Fort Lee, Virginia. The annual event is the largest American Culinary Federation sanctioned competition in North America, and it gathers the military’s best culinarians for an opportunity to compete, learn and showcase their particular talents.
Pfc. Arryamclaudine Monteza, assigned to 593rd Quartermaster Company, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade, scored the highest among the student chefs to secure her spot on the roster. This is her second year on the team.
“I’m just happy for the chance to try out and make the team again,” Monteza said. “If you want to make a career of this in the Army, you can actually meet a lot of people at the competition who can help you. It’s a privilege.”
Monteza said that the experience she gained last competition has improved her discipline in the kitchen.
“It really helped me manage my time better when I’m cooking,” she said. “Before last year, I couldn’t do any of those cuts, but you get to learn those skills really well. Skills, discipline and the eagerness to cook really well – all those things grew in me last year.”
Monteza said that her confidence also grew, but she is cautious not to be overconfident. She said that even though she knew what had to be done during tryouts, she could still be eliminated if the person cooking next to her presented a better plate of food.
She also noted that even the most confident chef can lose some self-assurance after standing before a panel of ACF-certified judges.
“You’re going to feel a little intimidated,” she said. “When they’re judging you, they are going to notice everything on the plate – things that you were hoping they weren’t going to see.”
Monteza said that she planned to treat everyone on her team as a judge while they train for the competition. She is prepared to take any criticism as an opportunity to grow as a chef.
“This year, if anyone has anything negative to say about my cooking, I’m going to write it down, accept it and learn from it,” she said. “At the end of the day, the judging will be much harder at the competition, so it is better to get used to it now.”
Galbreath said that the main areas for student chefs to continually improve upon are precision and timeliness in their cooking and plating, and cleanliness of their work stations.
The second day of the tryouts was for the professional chefs.
“They are making a chicken with pomegranate, with a lot of room for interpretation,” Galbreath said. “You can really mess this up easily if you don’t know how to cook it right. I chose this specifically to see their skill level and if they enhance it or stay true to the recipe.”
The chefs also made a rice pilaf, cooked asparagus and New England-style clam chowder with oyster cracker.
Sgt. Keisha Morgan, from 593rd Quartermaster Company, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade, earned one of the slots on the professional chefs team.
“It was a little nerve-wracking, this being my first time cooking for a competition,” she said. “It was a nice experience though. I really liked the rush of it and how good everything turned out.”
Time management is one of the crucial skills that chefs have to master when cooking multiple components at once. Morgan said that it can be overwhelming, and time seems to melt away.
“But it’s definitely fun and, all around, this was a good experience for me,” she said. “I look forward to learning new things and experience more what military cooks can do.”
The team also includes alternates who will train and assist with the team’s table display – a critical category for those vying for Installation of the Year honors at the competition.
Spc. Edgar Navarro said that he was happy to have made the team as an alternate and looks forward to the training.
“I love to cook, that’s what I want to do,” he said. “I’m just excited to be doing this.”
Also serving as an alternate, Spc. Daniela Ballesteros didn’t think she was going to make the team at all. She wanted to try out because she likes a challenge and this would be her first cooking competition.
“I haven’t had much kitchen experience recently because I’ve been in admin for almost a year and a half,” said Ballesteros, assigned to 10th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team. “I was nervous at tryouts.”
She said that feeling intensified when she saw Spc. Johnny Simmons, a returning team member, was running short on time during his tryout.
“I thought if that was happening to Simmons, then I’m definitely not going to make it,” Ballesteros said.
During the training, Ballesteros said she wanted to learn more about food presentation.
“I really want to learn how to make my plate look good,” she said.
Before she could begin training on plating techniques, the first team meeting on Dec. 17 had a different order of business. The Soldiers put aside their knife kits and chef’s whites for buckets of hot water, cleaning detergents, sponges and mops as they spent the day cleaning and organizing the kitchen and cooking stations for the weeks of training ahead.
Galbreath said that he wants to create a different kind of training environment at the Culinary Arts Center. He said that he would like to set up cooking stations similar to what they will see at Fort Lee and pipe in crowd noises on speakers to simulate cooking in front of a large crowd.
“Train how you fight, that’s what we’re going to do,” Galbreath said. “I know that professional chefs, when they go overseas to compete, that’s how they train. I think that anything we can do now to create the experience they will have in competition will help us when it matters.”