U.S. military’s Culinary Olympians train for victory at USAG Stuttgart

Commissaryman Chief Petty Officer Danielle Hughes (foreground) and Gunnery Sgt. Michael Watts, members of the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team (USACAT), prepare competition dishes during a training session at the Originals Dining Facility on Panzer Kaserne, U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart, Jan. 24. (Photo Credit: Bardia Khajenoori, USAG Stuttgart Public Affairs)

By Bardia Khajenoori, U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart Public AffairsFebruary 1, 2024


STUTTGART, Germany — With the 26th IKA/Culinary Olympics taking place in Stuttgart from Feb. 2-7, the Originals Dining Facility on U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart’s Panzer Kaserne has become ‘base camp’ for the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team (USACAT), which will compete in two categories at the event.

USACAT comprises members from across the armed forces, including a captain, manager, and culinary chefs. The team earned a silver medal in its live cooking competition among military national teams at the last edition of the Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung (International Exhibition of Culinary Art, or IKA/Culinary Olympics) in 2020, also in Stuttgart.

The last IKA/Culinary Olympics involved around 1,800 participants from 67 nations and attracted more than 100,000 attendees, according to organizers.

This year, USACAT will compete in the Community Catering and Cold Table categories as they strive for gold. The following is a condensed interview with Chief Warrant Officer 4 Karlatta Brown, team manager, and Sgt. Marlene Otero, a culinary chef, about the team, preparations for the 2024 event, and more:

How are members of USACAT chosen?

BROWN: It is very, very hard to pick people because the competition and talent in the military is enormous. We choose candidates based on their performance at the annual Joint Culinary Training Exercise (JCTE), where we can observe military chefs from all branches of service. Then we interview them, and they’re selected based on factors like skill, experience, location, availability, and personal characteristics. I chose this team because I know everyone can bring something to the table.

“I chose this team because I know everyone can bring something to the table.”

What are the personal qualities you look for in a USACAT member?

BROWN: Aside from dependability, flexibility, quick learning, and talent, I’m looking for someone who can both step in and lead when they need to, but also doesn’t have an issue with learning and following.

What are your own professional backgrounds that led you here?

BROWN: I’ve been in foodservice for the Army for 22 years, and in my role as team manager, I select the team, work with them on training and developing menus, and handle most of the logistics: moving personnel and equipment/rations, coordinating travel, and things like that.

OTERO: I joined the Army two and a half years ago with no real culinary experience other than cooking at home. It kind of just happened that I became a culinary specialist because when I joined, they said [Military Occupational Specialty] 92G, Culinary Specialist, was available, and it caught my eye, so I said I’ll go for it. I’ve gotten all my culinary training in uniform and have grown such a passion for it.

Staff Sgt. Symone Abreu, a member of the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team (USACAT), carefully portions a dish during a training session at the Originals Dining Facility on Panzer Kaserne, U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart, Jan. 24, 2024.

How does the team prepare for competitions and develop menus for them?

BROWN: We meet to train together, usually monthly, to keep skills sharp and build chemistry so the team members can learn from each other and get used to working together. Coming up with our menu is a collective effort, usually based around themes we brainstorm together. No matter what the competition is, we always have to make sure we’re prepared.

OTERO: It changes depending on the rules of each competition and what the judges want to see. Sometimes there are specific things we have to include, and with international competitions especially, one of the things we have to consider with recipe planning is the ingredients we can get at that location and whether they’re in season.

How would you describe the importance of the Culinary Olympics?

BROWN: This competition is the most important, and earning a medal here is probably the highest recognition a military chef could get. This is the one they really prepare for – the one that exposes you to other international teams at the Olympic level. OTERO: Everyone’s motivated and excited to be here, and it would be amazing and mean a lot to come back with gold medals. It’s a lot of hard work, but so rewarding, and we’ve come so far over the course of a year. Some of the teams competing have cooked together for two or three years.

“Earning a medal [at the Culinary Olympics] is probably the highest recognition a military chef could get.”

In which Culinary Olympics categories is the USACAT competing this year? How are they judged?

BROWN: The category with live cooking is Community Catering (Feb. 3), where they’ll be preparing a five course meal for 120 people; they have access to the kitchen from 5 a.m. and will serve the public from 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. Judging is based on things like taste, appearance, and technique. The other category is a display of cold food, more than 20 dishes, that is more about displaying technical skill and creativity. It actually takes longer than the live cooking category, and it’s the first time in eight years that we’ve competed in both categories.

Why go back to competing in both this year?

BROWN: I think it’s more of a challenge, and the chefs love doing it. This is their passion, and I want to make opportunities available to them so they can knock it out of the park like I know they can.

OTERO: The cold table competition shows off so many techniques, and it’s much different from live cooking. You have to create a beautiful display on a big table with centerpieces and six different categories that holds up for a long time, so I’m very excited for that.

How does the Culinary Olympics compare to other competitions you’ve taken part in?

OTERO: So far, the most servings I’ve done with the culinary team is just 50 portions. Now, we’re bumping it up to 120, and it has to be more refined, with certain ingredients and recipes. It’s definitely been a challenge, but we’re all here for it. We love new challenges, and one big thing the military teaches you is how to learn and adapt.

“We love new challenges, and one big thing the military teaches you is how to learn and adapt.”

Two members of this year’s team were also here at the last event, four years ago. Have they shared anything about what to expect?

OTERO: Oh, definitely. They’ve shown us pictures of how it’s going to be and talked about physical and mental preparation, especially keeping focus and concentrating when people are looking at you through the glass walls of the kitchen. They’ve also mentioned certain factors to keep in mind with creating recipes, the weather, and working under pressure.

Commissaryman Petty Officer 1st Class John Toman examines a tray of freshly roasted ingredients during a training session of the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team at the Originals Dining Facility on Panzer Kaserne, U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart, Jan. 24, 2024.

How does focusing on culinary arts and participating in competitions like these benefit the military?

BROWN: Food plays a huge role in readiness and also as a morale booster. Everything the team members learn not only benefits them, but their units too, and the services as a whole. They go back to their respective positions serving and working alongside their fellow Service Members, improving the quality and passing on what they learned.

OTERO: The biggest thing for me is taking care of our Soldiers. So when I come back home, I love being able to teach and pass on information. Sometimes I see people having trouble learning techniques or understanding how to cook, and one thing that USACAT teaches you is that we’re there to help our teams and be big supporters. I know everyone goes back and helps with mentoring and coaching whoever needs it.

“…we’re there to help our teams and be big supporters. I know everyone goes back and helps with mentoring and coaching …”

The team has been training long hours on a daily basis since you arrived in Stuttgart. What are you working on?

OTERO: We’ve mainly been working on our competition menu, always striving to do better. Whether it’s the plating, the flavor, the size, or adding or removing ingredients, we practice and practice so everything can come out perfect. Even though we’ve only been practicing for five days [in Stuttgart], we’ve made major changes since the first run through and I think we’ve come a long way. What do members of USACAT tend to do after leaving the military?

BROWN: Most of them come back and help the team as advisors. A lot of them continue teaching in the civilian sector or start their own restaurants, and while they’re with us they often get special professional certifications that help them whether or not they’re in the military. This is pretty much a lifestyle for these chefs.

What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?

OTERO: I make sure my Soldiers are aware of all the opportunities they have for professional development – that there are special programs you can apply to and certifications you can get to grow and motivate yourself in this field. I like to tell them to step outside their comfort zone and be willing to take on challenges.

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USACAT’s Feb. 3 Community Catering lunch table competition at the 26th Culinary Olympics, held at the Stuttgart Messe (convention center), is open to the public. Information and tickets for this and other Culinary Olympics events are available from the official website of the IKA/Culinary Olympics. No government endorsement implied.

A version of this story was first published in the First Quarter 2024 edition of the Stuttgart Citizen magazine.

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