JOHNSTON, IA, UNITED STATES
Story by Staff Sgt. Tawny Kruse
JOHNSTON, Iowa – What does it take for a small team of Iowa Soldiers to compete in the finals of a national culinary competition?
If it could be summed up in a recipe, a few of the ingredients would be grit, ambition, skill and teamwork.
Senior National Guard food advisors and a representative from the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation traveled to a snow-covered Camp Dodge on January 24 to watch the team cook for a chance to win the 55th Philip A. Connelly Culinary Excellence Competition (Field Feeding category). The Iowa National Guard’s 334th Brigade Support Battalion is competing against three other states – Illinois, Ohio and Hawaii – to claim the title.
After dedicating themselves the past two years and winning their state and regional competitions, making it to the Department of the Army finals is the culmination of the team’s training and hard work. Sgt. 1st Class Mark Krugle, the culinary management noncommissioned officer, believes they have a good shot at winning.
“I’m very proud of all of them,” Krugle said. “They’ve all come so far in such a short amount of time to get to this level of the competition. You can only train so much, but competitions truly put you to the test.”
Staff Sgt. Sarah Eimers was first cook, making her responsible for quality control, keeping the team on track for time and ensuring they operated safely. Eimers was one of the first women in the National Guard to attend the advanced culinary skills training course at Fort Lee, Virginia, an intense hands-on course that challenges experienced cooks to improve their techniques.
As the Soldiers chopped fresh vegetables for a rice pilaf, baked garlic bread knots and cooked chicken in a homemade spiced broth, all while inside a cramped kitchen trailer, it was like watching a well-oiled machine. From the moment they woke up before the sun had risen to the time they started serving food to 60 Soldiers waiting in line outside, each person knew their task.
“The teamwork has definitely helped us,” Eimers said. “It’s tiny in the kitchen, and you get stressed out and sleep deprived. Even when we get on each other’s nerves, we’re like a family. At the end of the day, everyone is good at what they do.”
The Philip A. Connelly Awards Program was created in 1968 to improve the professionalism of food service personnel and recognize those who strive for excellence; but the taste of the food they served was far from the only thing the team was being evaluated on.
Sam Stanovich with the NRA Educational Foundation said each evaluator has a 1,000-point checklist to go through during the final competition that covers a wide variety of topics – location, setup, cleanliness and presentation, to name a few.
“The first Soldier in line should get the same quality of food as the last,” Stanovich said.
The ability to compete each year depends heavily on the support of senior leaders in the unit. When Krugle first took on the role as culinary management NCO, he was challenged to bring home a win for the 334th BSB.
Many of the Soldiers in the unit are not cooks in their civilian careers – Krugle himself included. He works as a correctional officer, while another is a school bus driver. Having a chance at winning would require extra time and resources to ensure they were up to the task.
Lt. Col. George Mosby, the battalion commander, was invested in providing what they needed. Winning the competitions at all levels comes with monetary rewards and training opportunities that go right back into improving the unit’s equipment and capabilities.
“Just think of all the things that happen around food, right?” Mosby said. “It’s good things, a lot of camaraderie and things that we celebrate. We want that to be an enjoyable experience for our Soldiers when they come through, and that keeps them excited to do the mission.”
After the meals were served, several Soldiers returned to the kitchen to praise the team who put their full passion into cooking the food. Brig. Gen. Stephen Osborn, Deputy Adjutant General of the Iowa National Guard, cleaned his plate, and the garlic bread knots were a hit. The winner will be announced in the spring of 2023.