Working together: ACF, schoolhouse partnership pays dividend

American Culinary Federation judges critique the work of participants in the Armed Forces Chef of the Year category of the 2018 Joint Culinary Training Event March 9 at Joint Culinary Training Center. The ACF sanctions the JCTE and also supports military food programs with certifications for individual skills. Furthermore, it serves as a consultant for the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team that competes internationally. photo by T. Anthony Bell

FORT LEE, Va. (March 15, 2018) — Arguably, the most important moments during the Joint Culinary Training Exercise are the critiques following each event. For the American Culinary Federation judges, it is an occasion to teach, coach and mentor. Competitors gain the knowledge to acquire skills that will ultimately help prepare military members for battle.

This exchange is played out hundreds of times during the JCTE challenge and ultimately serves as a statement of purpose, but more importantly, underscores the collaborative efforts between the Department of Defense and ACF to improve military food service programs. That partnership began in the early 1970s when Army Lt. Gen. John D. McLaughlin and others charted a strategic course of action to improve every facet of Army food service. The results are evident, said a longtime ACF judge who knew McLaughlin.

“The food is much, much better than what I’ve seen before,” said ACF Chef Roland Schaffer, who has been associated with the Army food service program since the 1980s. “They pay more attention to food.”

The increased focus on military cuisine began in 1973 with the first Army culinary arts event that did not feature hot food. A few years later, an Army culinary arts team was added, and the competitive event gradually grew over the years, undergoing several name changes to reflect that growth. Today, it is the largest competition of its kind in North America, attracting more than 200 participants representing all of the U.S. Armed Forces as well as those from other countries.

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Joseph Wisniewski, coordinator for this year’s JCTE and manager of the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team, said the Army’s relationship with the ACF is robust and productive.

“We have a very close relationship with the ACF,” he said. “It sanctions the competition and gives latitude to the event itself. In addition, the medals competitors earn can be credited toward ACF certification. We also partner with them for our accreditation program, which equates to civilian skills all over the world.”

Furthermore, ACF judges act as consultants to the Army Culinary Arts team, DOD’s representative in international competitions such as the Culinary Olympics in Germany.

The ACF, based in Florida, is a professional association of more than 17,000 chefs and cooks “promoting the professional image of American chefs worldwide through education of culinarians at all levels,” according to its website. Roughly 12-15 ACF judges lend their presence to the JCTE on an annual basis. Many have supported the competition for years and are enthusiastic about returning. ACF President Stafford DeCambra, who has judged here more than a decade, said the event is inspirational.

“I’m at the point where I want to give back,” he said, “and when I see the Soldiers, I think about myself; I think (of the time) when I was their age and I was coming up. I can see they have the initiative, the energy and the enthusiasm and they want the knowledge. I can feel the energy going back and forth (during critiques). For me, that’s the most important thing.”

The ACF’s impact on military food service is felt far beyond its commitment to coaching, teaching and mentoring. In the area of credentialing, for example, the ACF’s 40-year relationship with military food service may be considered a forerunner of credentialing programs that have cropped up all over DOD the past eight years. It has for decades provided military members with access to the same professional certification opportunities offered to civilians. As of late, it has expanded its certification programs to include those supporting the services occupational specialties without cost.

Sgt. 1st Class Marc Susa, joint culinary arts program noncommissioned officer in charge at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., said certifications are not just skill validations for the civilian sector. They also enhance promotion potential.

“It separates you from the pack, and it gives you longevity as far as career opportunities,” said the Soldier who is working to earn a certified executive chef designation. “So, it you are looking for assignments at the Pentagon (and similar prestigious positions), they are asking ‘What did this person do to separate himself from his peers?’ It definitely can enhance your chances for getting a certain job.”

The U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team, an additional means to improve military food service skills, was established in 1976. Since then, the ACF-supported program has earned accolades at events all over the world. USACAT team members are culled from JCTE participants based on their skill level and potential. For those earning spots on the team, it’s a unique training experience that pays dividends well into the future, said SFC Andre Ward.

“I definitely think being on the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Teams has benefited my Soldiers,” said the former team member and Advanced Food Service Training Course instructor. “I see some of the Soldiers who were under me on the team now. It gave them something to shoot for. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of the Olympics or World Cup? I am obligated to pass on what I learned to Soldiers working in the dining facility, and I’m obligated to make sure they incorporate those things in the dining facility so the Soldiers can see they have something special there.”

“Obligation” is a watchword among culinary administrators and trainers at the JCTE. Wisnieski said the competition has a way about it that makes it easier for participants to live up to the expectation of sharing.

“It motivates the Soldiers to compete,” he said. “When they leave here, they do so with a lot of good ideas to take back to their dining facilities to improve their feeding programs.”

The ACF’s support for the culinary competition, the culinary arts team and credentialing program for military members presents a three-pronged approach to skill and program improvement that has few rivals. DeCambra said his organization continues to fine-tune its offerings to military members and looks forward to enhancing its relationship with DOD.

“I hope we continue down this path,” he said. “It’s the most important thing for us to develop as well as moving with the times and changes of the military. For us, it’s about looking at these pillars – these programs – tailoring and bringing them up to date to deliver the right skills, knowledge and education to these young military chefs, because when it comes down to it, we’re all one, all in the this brotherhood together.”

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