CAMP SMITH TRAINING SITE , NY, UNITED STATES
Story by Sgt. Matthew Gunther
CAMP SMITH, NY–The lunch prepared by the mess section of Fox Company, 427th Brigade Support Battalion on March 8, 2020 included lentil vegetable soup, baked stuffed pork chops, and cottage fried potatoes, cream onion gravy, southern green beans, fresh cornbread and carrot cake.
New York Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Eli Solis, the food service manager, was hoping his nine culinary Soldiers would also be cooking up victory in the Army’s annual food service competition, along with a great lunch.
The lunch the Fox Company cooks prepared at Camp Smith Training Site was the final test in their effort to beat out three other mess sections for the title of best cooks in the Army National Guard.
The New Yorkers were competing in the Army’s Connelly Food Service Competition against cooks from the 195th Forward Support Company in Nebraska; Headquarters Company of the 429th Support Battalion in Virginia; and Headquarters Detachment of the 109th Medical Battalion in Iowa.
The four mess sections competed by setting up their kitchens and preparing a meal at a local training area while being evaluated by experts.
The Fox Company culinary specialists previously won their regional competition during their annual training at Fort Drum, N.Y. in July 2019.
The Phillip A. Connelly Program, named for a food industry icon, recognizes outstanding cooks and culinary teams in the Active Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve.
The final winner for each of the three components will be announced in April.
The Fox Company mess team, which drills at the Jamaica Armory in Queens, New York City, and supports the 450 Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 258th Field Artillery, set up their Containerized Kitchen in the woods at Camp Smith Training Site near Peekskill, N.Y. to replicate field conditions.
Three evaluators who travelled from the Joint Center of Culinary Excellence at Fort Lee, Virginia, watched every step of the process.
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Dawn Broe and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Tollie Yoder represented the Army while David Mitchell, a civilian, represented the National Restaurant Association which sponsors the Connelly program.
Having experts watch everything he and his troops did was the toughest part of the competition, according to Solis.
The assessment by the experts covers every aspect of operational readiness, not just the cooking prowess of the culinary specialists.
The evaluators check everything from the service schedules of the vehicles and equipment, receipts for food and supplies by their supply section, and any other planning and support that was provided by the rest of their unit to get them where they are.
“We aren’t just looking for who can cook the best food,” Yoder explained. “We are looking at the big picture, as well as how these units adapt to stressful situations. Something as simple as a generator running out of fuel can put an entire mission in jeopardy, and we want to see how they react to such an occurrence.”
Safety and food sanitation are also critical in the grading process, Yoder said.
“In terms of the sanitary handling of the food, we are holding these Soldiers to the same standard as a civilian restaurant. This is incredibly challenging given that all their equipment and facilities are portable,” Yoder noted.
While he wants to win, Solis said he wanted his Soldiers to grow from the experience of being in the competition.
“Most of these Soldiers are new to the Army, straight from their initial training,” he said.
“In preparation for this event I have had to teach them basic cooking principles like knife skills and following recipes. There are other things that are harder to teach: teamwork, attention to detail, and overcoming adversity, all skills which are required for this competition as well as the real world,” explained Solis, who is a professional chef in civilian life.
Spc. Erica Bishop, a senior cook, said that the mess team improved a lot between July, when they won the regional competition, and the March 8 evaluation.
“We really took the feedback that we received to heart and tried to strengthen any weak areas we had, as well as improving as a whole,” Bishop said.
“Additionally we needed to bring our new Soldiers into step with us and make them feel like a part of the team,” she added.
Some of the Soldiers who cooked on March 8 were still in school when the mess section competed in July.
One of those new Soldiers, Pfc. Gisselle Acosta, said she never felt left out as the section prepared for the March 8 evaluation.
“If I ever seemed lost, anyone on the team would drop what they were doing and walk me through it. We like to have fun, but the competitiveness and teamwork is always apparent,” Acosta said.
“I think we will do well together,” she said.
“It is important for me to perform well and win this competition, not for myself, but for the team,” Acosta added.