Inside the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Center, Part III: Thriving under pressure of competitive cooking

Photo By Michael Strasser | Sgt. Bryan Serrano, with 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, practices healthy cooking for the Nutrition Hot Food Challenge category at the 48th Joint Culinary Training Event at Fort Gregg-Adams in March. Alongside, Spc. Diego Rios, the pair is tasked with producing a four-course meal for four, consisting of a hot appetizer, soup or salad, entrée, and dessert. The recipes must be validated by a dietitian to meet the 1,000-calorie limit, with certain protein, carbohydrate, and fat percentages. (Photo by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)  

FORT DRUM, NY, UNITED STATES

02.08.2024

Story by Michael Strasser 

Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs 

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FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Feb. 8, 2024) — Members of the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team have a lot on their plates with three weeks before they compete at the 48th Joint Culinary Training Event at Fort Gregg-Adams, Virginia.

“It’s crunch time for us,” said Staff Sgt. David Wisbauer, team captain. “We only have so much time to really dig our heels in and get as much training in as we can.”

The chefs are refining their menus to gold-medal quality as they continue practicing their cooking and plating techniques every day. After months of training, the work week occasionally seeps into the weekends to maximize their time in the kitchen.

“It’s been a full sprint since December and everyone is feeling it,” Wisbauer said. “But this is a great group of chefs who want to improve their skills. We’ve thrown a lot at them, and still they are willing to work hard, stay late, and do what needs to be done. If I said, ‘Hey, I really think we would benefit from one more run-through, they’d hop on it.’”

Before they depart Fort Drum, the team will conduct an overnight rehearsal of the cold food table display.

Wisbauer said this is a total team effort to create a buffet of different dishes – petit fours and plated desserts, a four-course vegan meal, finger foods, a charcuterie platter, and a centerpiece. Every bit of food is covered in gelatin, so the idea is to present eye-pleasing plates that demonstrate a variety of culinary techniques, attention to details, and masterful plating.

Spc. Diego Rios, with the 41st Engineer Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, is responsible for creating the table’s four vegetarian plates, on top of competing in the Nutrition Hot Food Challenge and the Hot Food Kitchen categories.

But as a second-year member, Rios said he can manage the pressure that comes with competitive cooking.

“A lot of what I learned last year – the basic cuts, different cooking methods and techniques – all of that carries over to what I’m doing now,” he said. “So, there is less anxiety even though I’m doing different categories for the first time.”

Rios said training with the Culinary Arts Team removes them from the typical day-to-day routine inside the warrior restaurants on post, and it tests their ability to thrive in a competitive environment.

“This is giving me an opportunity to actually learn a lot more about culinary arts,” he said. “I feel like I’ve learned what I can about cooking from the dining facility, and being on the culinary team lets me continue to build that knowledge base.”

Participating in the JCTE allows culinary specialists to network with their peers and see chefs perform from other installations and branches of service.

“I look forward to showing what I’ve been working so hard on and being critiqued by certified executive chefs and certified master chefs, which isn’t an opportunity many people get,” Rios said.

For the Nutrition Hot Food Challenge, Rios will team with Sgt. Bryan Serrano to produce a four-course meal for four consisting of a hot appetizer, soup or salad, entrée, and dessert. The recipes must be validated by a dietitian to meet the 1,000-calorie limit, with certain protein, carbohydrate, and fat percentages.

“Coming back this year as a professional chef, I knew it would be a different experience and more challenging,” Rios said. “But I’m always willing to learn new things. And I’m flexible, so I would have been happy to cook in any category.”

The final run-through on Feb. 15, before the team leaves for Fort Gregg-Adams, will test Rios and four other senior chefs on the Hot Food Kitchen category, also known as the Mobile Kitchen Trailer (MKT). The chefs cook a four-course meal to serve 50 people, with the menu consisting of a soup, salad, a meat dish, a vegetarian dish, sides, and a dessert. The challenge lies in creating a fine-dining meal using field cooking equipment. This includes a high-heat flat top, two burners and an oven, using compressed diesel fuel.

Serrano, with 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, is contributing a flavorful couscous salad to the menu.

“I’m really excited about it,” he said. “Right now, it’s really good but we’re still adding to it, making it better.”

He said there are many ways to elevate a salad and make it stand out. Whether it’s a squeeze of lemon juice or a palate-pleasing avocado and mango combination, Serrano said he has experimented with many options.

“I think I’m going to see now what I can do to have a little crunch to it,” he said.

With his focus on that during a four-hour menu run-through, there are four other chefs a few feet away working on their own courses. To that end, synchronicity is key and the ability to communicate and work seamlessly in the same space is crucial.

“We work really well together,” Serrano said. “Anytime one chef gets ahead on time, they contribute to the rest of the team.”

One unique aspect of the Joint Culinary Training Event is that most of the cooking categories are held inside a field house, where spectators can watch all the action and a panel of American Culinary Federation-certified judges keep watchful eyes on the chefs.

That’s where Spc. Crystal Gordon, with 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, will make two desserts – one for the Student Chef Team of the Year and another for the Student Pastry Chef of the Year category.

After experimenting with different recipes, she came up with the idea for a lemon tart for the Student Team menu.

“It’s a strawberry sherbet and lemon tart, which I added chocolate right into it with a raspberry coulis,” Gordon said. “Then I have toasted coconut flakes, macerated fruit – strawberry, kiwi, and pineapple. It looks simple, but there are a lot of components to it.”

The other dessert has posed more of a challenge for Gordon because the recipe has ingredients that don’t match her taste preferences.

“I take in everybody’s opinions and critique whenever I work on my dish,” she said. “I go home, and I do my research. But at the end of the day, I want to do what is best for my dish because I am the one who is going to be judged.”

With the competition close at hand, Gordon said she feels the pressure of making last-minute changes.

“It’s really difficult, because we are going to be leaving soon and I only have a couple more times to practice,” she said. “But my goal is to get a gold medal.”

To see training photos of the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team, visit www.flickr.com/photos/drum10thmountain/albums/72177720314478479.

For more information about the 48th Joint Culinary Training Event, visit https://quartermaster.army.mil/jccoe/Special_Programs_Directorate/Culinary_Arts/Culinary_Arts_main.html.

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