JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. – Steam billows from under a small tarp out in the woods as Soldiers from the New York Army National Guard’s 101st Expeditionary Signal Battalion receive their dinner meals.
As the sun sets behind the trees a camouflaged line forms, moving seamlessly from left to right. Each Soldier steps up onto the platform of the field kitchen with an empty tray and steps off with a full plate of fresh cooked food, as the culinary specialists behind the burners scramble to prepare and serve each meal.
“Barbecue, jerk, or baked?” repeats Spc. Fatima S. Edwards, a culinary specialist assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, referring to the choice of chicken each soldier has available to them as they move down the line. With hand-mashed potatoes and an assortment of cookies and snacks to choose from, this meal was far from the Meal, Ready to Eat that Soldiers typically receive in the field.
“Making people smile from just tasting the food, that’s how you know the job is done right,” said Edwards. “We all work hard, and its important work to provide quality meals for our fellow Soldiers.”
It doesn’t look like it, but Edwards and three other culinary specialists from the 101st are gearing up for a major competition.
Edwards along with Spc. Maurice Bourne, Spc. Jalen Johnson, and Spc. Monica C. Gooding were selected to participate in the Army’s annual cooking competition, the Philip A. Connelly Awards Program.
They completed their train-up during their monthly drill using a mobile kitchen trailer at a forest training site at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
The goal was to ensure that the Soldiers are ready to compete in in a timed event where they will be assessed on a range of culinary practices and regulations.
The Philip A. Connelly competition provides recognition for excellence in the preparation and serving of food, both in field kitchen operations and Army dining facilities. Competitors are evaluated on details such as food preparation, quality, sanitary practices, personnel appearance, and professional attitude.
“I know they are going to give it their all, and I hope their nerves don’t get to them,” said Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Rose, the NCO in-charge of the training event. “There’s no need to be perfect. These Soldiers are always putting their best effort out there, and they deserve to be recognized for that.”
The exercise gave the Soldiers a chance to conduct training in an unfamiliar field environment and get hands-on experience with some of the equipment and practices that will be under evaluation during the competition.
“Our job is not like everybody else’s,” Rose said. “There are multiple things that need to be done like food storage, equipment transport, field sanitation, and they all get done as a team. Many hands make light work.”
The Soldiers still prepared meals for their unit while being assessed and worked together to cut, clean, and cook as efficiently as possible.
“I am proud of our culinary specialists and their hard work, especially our first-time competitors who are stepping up to the challenge,” said Lt. Col. Michael Hastings, commander of the 101st.
Despite facing challenges with maintaining temperatures, working in a narrow space, and losing light as the sun began to set, the Soldiers worked diligently to complete their tasks to standard.
“The main thing that I can see becoming a challenge is time,” said Gooding, a culinary specialist assigned to C Company. “Making sure that everything is being done properly, but at the same time not thinking about the pressure and just being natural, is going to make or break us.”
With this training event completed, the team is looking forward to applying what they have learned in the competition and all future training events, said Rose.
“We have a strong team, enjoy what we’re doing, and love cooking,” said Rose. “When you are standing in line, you see that this is where your food is coming from and we want you to feel good about it. Good food is like good music, it feels good to the body especially after you’ve been working hard.”
In 2020, Soldiers from Fox Company of the 427th Support Battalion won the regional Connelly Competition cook-off and competed against Nebraska, Virginia and Iowa to be the best in the Army National Guard.