PARIS, IL, UNITED STATES
Story by Cpl. Justin Malone
It’s dark. The sun has yet to rise on a cold February morning. Wind is gusting across the open fields sending chills up the backs of Soldiers who ignore the cold breeze and frosted tree branches. Soldiers are moving fast paced from every direction carrying heavy boxes and large barrels as they race against the clock to complete their mission. Their goal – to feed and fuel the Soldiers of the Illinois National Guard and win the U.S. Army’s coveted 55th annual Philip A. Connelly Award for excellence in food service.
Soldiers with the Illinois Army National Guard’s Detachment 3, 733rd Quartermaster Platoon have already been deemed the best in the Illinois Army National Guard and in the top four in the nation. Now the knives – and spoons, forks and spatulas – are out for the national competition. The 733rd is competing against worthy opponents from Iowa, Ohio and Hawaii.
The Army’s Philip A. Connelly Award Program is run with the support of the National Restaurant Association. It was established in 1968 to recognize excellence in Army Food Service. The program is named for the late Philip A. Connelly, former president of the International Food Service Executives Association.
The 733rd Quartermaster Soldiers refused to talk smack about their fellow Midwest Hawkeyes and Buckeyes competition. And – given the frozen tundra of the Illinois Army National Guard’s Paris-based Field Maintenance Facility on Feb. 4 and Feb. 5 – many wished they were in Hawaii for the evaluation. But, with the Connelly Award scheduled to be presented in Chicago later this year, the Illinois Army National Guard Soldiers figure they have the homefield advantage.
The winners – most likely the Illinois Soldiers – will hoist the Connelly Award’s prestigious Silver Cup over their heads – and receive specialized training at the award ceremony in the Windy City.
Samuel Stanovich from the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation and a competition judge has been involved with the Philip A. Connelly Program for over 15 years. “We’ve seen the power of the program,” said Stanovich. “We need great culinarians. If you feed people better, they perform better, which helps support the mission of the military. This program is worth all of the volunteer time in the world to better prepare our Soldiers for service.”
The Philip A. Connelly is a program that challenges the skills and capabilities of the whole Army culinary specialist. It’s not just about preparing the meal – although the meals the 733rd Quartermaster prepared were absolutely gourmet. The menu included a scrumptious butternut squash soup, baked creole chicken quarters spiced to perfection over Southwest barley and brown rice pilaf. Side dishes were sauteed cabbage with bacon and a fresh cucumber and onion salad. For dessert – American-favorite strawberry shortcake and fresh fruit.
But there’s a lot more that goes into it other than the cooking, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Melissa Downey, the senior food service advisor for the Illinois Army National Guard’s 108th Sustainment Brigade. The Soldiers are expected to deliver the right equipment to the right place, setup and maintain equipment and then break everything down.
During the setup, the culinarians are responsible for setting up the mobile kitchen trailer and the field sanitation center, to cook the food and clean the dishes in the field. The environments must be setup quickly, correctly, cleanly and you better not go past the time limit. Once facilities are built, Soldiers must quickly prepare and serve meals to troops in both garrison and field environments.
The Soldiers must also keep safety and sanitation in mind at all times, Downey added.
The 733rd Quartermaster’s 5-person team of culinary experts was ready to go after months of preparation and after having already burned through previous rounds of competition.
The path to the top has not been an easy one, or, to quote the 1970s rock band Queen, “It’s been no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise.”
The team started the competition as the food service section of the Paris, Illinois-based 1544th Transportation Company and rolled through the state and regional rounds as part of the 1544th Transportation Company, 232nd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 108th Sustainment Brigade. They advanced to the Final Four after a legendary performance in the May 2022 regional round. And then the Army implemented force structure changes in August 2022 that knocked culinary specialists out of the transportation unit.
But Staff Sgt. Justin Hill, the head culinarian from the 1544th, kept his band together. Now as Detachment 3 of the newly formed 733rd Quartermaster Platoon, they “mean to go on and on and on and on.” Because they are the champions, my friends.
To get to this level, the Illinois National Guard was nominated by the National Guard Bureau as one of those four top culinary performers from across the country. At the regional level, they competed against other states on a point system. After that, only four states emerged at the Department of the Army level – four elite culinary teams.
Hill, also a food service program manager for the Illinois Department of Corrections, was proud of the team for getting to the Department of the Army level. “It means a lot to get this far,” said Hill. “You think about all of the hard work that you put in and the time away from our jobs. The learning experience was extremely valuable for the Soldiers.”
Hill also said that their chain of command supported them through the competition and Army transition.
“We want Soldiers to embrace the program as we continue to modernize our efforts,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Tollie Yoder, the Senior Army National Guard Food Advisor, and an inspector for the competition. “It’s a great time to be in food service and this is an exclamation point as to what we can do and what we provide and to showcase some of our true culinarians and the great things that they have been doing in the force.”
After the long day of competition, Cpl. Madhi Ina, a culinary specialist and the team baker, was excited to have participated in such a great event.
“This was a great learning experience,” Madhi said. “I want to go to school to be a baker and looking to start a career as a baker. I love culinary and making meals, but I fell in love with baking a little bit more after I joined the Army.”
According to Madhi, this experience brought her one step closer to learning more about the culinary arts and she hopes to one day open up her own café.
Now that the Illinois Army National Guard has completed their portion of the competition, the judges will inspect the last two competitors before announcing (Illinois as) the winner and (one of the other states as the) runner-up in May.
Find out more about culinary opportunities in the Army National Guard by visiting: https://www.nationalguard.com/92g-food-service-specialist.