FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Dec. 21, 2022) — They know how to cook good food, and lots of it.
At the dining facilities across Fort Drum, culinary specialists serve up breakfast, lunch, and dinner to hundreds of Soldiers every day.
However, hand-picked among them is a group of talented chefs who are taking their food knowledge and skills to another level as members of the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team.
The culinary specialists earned their spots on the team after tryouts in late October. And week after week – with several more to go – the team has worked on their menus in preparation for the 47th annual Joint Culinary Training Exercise at Fort Lee, Virginia, in March.
Sgt. David Wisbauer, team captain, said that the chefs are building camaraderie as much as they are cooking delicious food. He said one of the earliest hurdles to overcome was developing a competitive, fine-dining mentality within the team so that they could create cuisine of the highest quality.
“And that’s not an easy transition,” Wisbauer said. “I feel we are still finding our groove, but as we move closer and closer to the competition in March, the skills and precision are coming together. It’s a work in progress, but the chefs are well ahead of where I thought we would be.”
During a recent menu rehearsal, Wisbauer observed the student chefs working seamlessly as a team. Then he noted how the professional chefs were communicating flawlessly while practicing the Nutritional Hot Food Challenge category. It raised a question in his mind.
“For me, it’s a little scary, because if they are this comfortable this early, then what more can they do?” he said. “That’s not a dig on them, that’s something to be proud of, because if they are this comfortable with the menu now, it’s because their skill and passion has gotten them there.”
And that’s when things become interesting.
“We are at a point where, I wouldn’t say we are trying to make things more difficult for the chefs, but more complex,” Wisbauer said. “We can add more to our repertoire, so we are able to perform better. If they are willing to put that much attention in their work and really learn the menu, then it’s exciting to be able to challenge them with more technique and more components.”
In the Nutritional Hot Food Challenge, Spc. Irving Stratton and Spc. Peyton Piver have 90 minutes to prep and cook four portions of a four-course meal that includes a hot appetizer, soup or salad, an entrée and a dessert. What makes it a real challenge is that the menu cannot exceed 1,000 calories and must meet strict nutritional guidelines that are validated by a registered dietitian.
“I think this shows a different skill set because you have to make a great plate of food that is healthy, and you are still able to have dessert,” Stratton said. “People think of nutrition as a salad or something like that, but I like to think that with practice you can make it look good, taste good and be nutritious.”
Piver said that they are set to prove that nutritional food can be exciting.
“I’ve always thought that food is never boring,” he said. “You control how you prepare it, how you cook it and how you present it.”
Piver made a dessert that was essentially apple, yogurt, and oatmeal, but he gave it a “Top Chef” presentation.
“Something like quinoa, which people might think is boring, can be made complex,” he said. “You can add a basil pesto to quinoa and it’s a whole new flavor profile, and you still have the nutritional value but with another level of flavor to it. It’s about finding those small things to help elevate the dish.”
Pfc. Chimene Gbengbeni got her first taste of competition when the 2nd Brigade Combat Team’s Commando Warrior Restaurant hosted the Brigade Burger Battle in August. Culinary specialists across the 10th Mountain Division (LI) had the chance to create an original burger to impress the panel of judges, and Gbengbeni earned the trophy for making the best burger.
Whether it was the hamburger bun she made from scratch, the perfect blend of seasonings on the patty, or her special sauce, Gbengbeni wasn’t sure what put her ahead of the other competitors.
“But I was very proud,” she said. “It was hard because I was the only private with all these NCOs. I was like, ‘I’m not going to win,’ but at the end I was surprised when they told me I had the best burger.”
If that experience was a little nerve-wracking for her, Gbengbeni isn’t feeling any doubts about her ability among the student chefs on the team.
“Here, I’m having fun and learning a lot of new things every day,” she said. “Things that I never knew I could do. It’s very relaxed here. I love it.”
As team manager, Sgt. Gianoah Miller handles all the logistics required for the team to be successful.
According to the event guidelines, Miller had to submit the menus for every category, with photos of the food, as well as team member photos by the end of November. He also handles food orders – making sure chefs have the products they need to train with – and scheduling training time for teams and individuals, while adjusting for personnel issues that may arise.
“There’s a lot of obstacles we have to deal with,” he said. “It could be a Soldier not feeling well one day, or someone having to leave for an appointment. People have families to take care of on top of all of this. So, I think motivation is important here – lifting people up when they are down. We’re Soldiers but we are all human, and we have real-world problems. Although we put in a lot of hours at work, we still need to go home, be with family, rest and get that peace of mind to be able to come back the next day to continue the work.”
Working with Wisbauer, Miller said they will continue to refine the recipes and finished plates leading up to the competition.
“We do a lot of research and development along the way,” he said. “So what we go to Fort Lee with is the result of a lot of hard work and careful examination of every detail on the plates.”
There is a “train as you fight” mentality in the kitchen, or rather, “cook as you will compete,” because while practicing their menu, the chefs must follow the competition guidelines. That means cooking, plating, and serving within a time limit, and working with the same equipment and space they will have at Fort Lee.
Although chefs will be spending less time training during the holiday leave period, Miller said he is confident they will pick right up in 2023 with the progress they have made so far.
“I think we have great camaraderie throughout the team, our menus are great and there is a lot of potential there for chefs to do great things,” Miller said.