BOURNE, Mass. – As they scurried between a few tents and a truck, the small group of Soldiers who had gathered at Tactical Training Base Kelley, were trying to solve one of the longest running problems any military has ever faced throughout history.
These were Soldiers from the 110th Support Maintenance Company, Massachusetts Army National Guard, and as an early winter storm lashed the base with 60 mph winds that drove sheets of rain against their structures, what they were brewing up two days before Halloween was worthy of the holiday.
A good meal created inside an Army field kitchen (in this case the newer Containerized Kitchen).
This was not just any meal, this meal had to have soup (French Onion), salad (Cucumber), bread (hot rolls), a main course (Salisbury steak), a vegetable (carrots), a starch (potato wedges), and desert (brownies). Starting at 11:00a.m., the Soldiers had six hours to prep, cook and have everything ready for at least 100 Soldiers by 5:00 p.m.
The cooks from the 110th were competing in the final round of the field kitchen category; Department of the Army’s Philip A. Connelly Awards Program for Excellence in Army Food Service.
The competition is named after Phillip A. Connelly, a native of Framingham, Mass., who worked in the field of food service management. One of his goals was to raise the level of professionalism of those who worked in the food service industry, weather it was in the military, government or civilian sectors.
Competing in the Connelly is nothing new for the 110th, in 2007 the unit was the National Guard runner up in the field kitchen category.
“The Connelly is very prestigious,” said Sgt. 1st Class Evan Brooks, Food Service Sergeant, 110th SMC “As a cook it’s probably the most prestigious thing you can do.”
The prestige of the competition did not get in the way of the work the five cooks had before them. While the items in the meal were preset by the judges, for purposes of judging, the unit was able to make some modifications.
The potato wedges did not begin the competition as a pre-packaged product, they started as whole potatoes; so the cooks had to wash and slice them before the seasoning was added.
“We had garlic powder and onion powder and salt and pepper and paprika,” said Sgt. Deborah St. Dennis, a food service specialist, 125th Quartermaster Company (but currently attached to the 110th), “and parsley, don’t forget the parsley.”
The Salisbury steaks did not look like a Salisbury steak, they too were handmade.
“It has 90/10 ground beef, there’s onions, Worcestshire sauce, ground pepper, salt, bread crumbs, dehydrated milk, egg and water, said Sgt. Kevin Blakely, head cook, 110th SMC., “You can always take food and make a great meal. You just have to know what to do with it.”
Even the onions in the French onion soup received special attention.
“We sautéed the onions and then we put them on the grill, the grill that was used for the Salisbury steaks,” said Sgt. Matt Gately, a food service specialist from Wareham, Mass., “Every time you took a bite of an onion, it was a meat explosion.”
For St. Dennis, the cooking was the easy part.
“We have to make sure all the paperwork is in check, we have all our manuals, all the TM’s (training manuals) for all the equipment we’re going to be using,” said St. Dennis, “(Department of the Army) 2404’s (equipment inspection and maintenance worksheets), make sure everything’s in check, everything works, check on your sanitation team; make sure their paperwork’s all set to go. It’s a lot harder than a lot of people think.”
Normally the meal in the field kitchen category is served in the CK; however the cooks asked the judges if the meal could be served in a large tent nearby. The cooks did not want their fellow Soldiers to have to stand outside in the storm as they waited for their meal. The judges agreed. The cooks now had to place all their meals in mermite containers, hand carry them into the nearby tent and still have everything ready to go by 5p.m..
Promptly at 5p.m., the meal was served and a new phase of judging began. These “judges” were other Soldiers from the 110th; it was their dinner the cooks had been preparing.
Paul Deignan, a competition judge with the International Food Service Executives Association, started to make his way up and down the rows of eating Soldiers. He was observing what was being eaten and what was not.
“What did you like best?” asked Deignan.
“The Salisbury steak,” responded Spc. Joshua Diaz, a small arms repairer.
“The Salisbury steak, was it hot enough?” asked Deignan.
“Yeah,” replied Diaz.
Apparently a lot of Soldiers agreed with Diaz. When seconds were offered to the Soldiers, many came back with the Salisbury steak on their plates.
Throughout the entire competition, Sgt. Maj. Mark Warren, Sgt. Maj., Joint Culinary Center of Excellence, Fort Lee, Va., kept a sharp eye out for everything, especially the little things.
“The performance of the food service team was exceptional,” said Warren, “The thing that was very exceptional was the way they prepared the Salisbury steaks and the other items. They took into consideration the troop acceptability; they split the brownie recipe in half. Half had nuts, the other half did not. That was something unique to the unit. They did (a) great job understanding the weather issues that were out here. They prepared warming and cooling dishes for the Guard forces, that’s a plus up. They consistently worked to make sure the unit had what they needed when they needed it.”
After the meal was finished and the area cleaned up, Warren and the rest of the team handed out some certificates before heading to the airport. There were three more units for the team to judge before a final decision is announced in early December.
Then the winners in all the various categories from the Active, Reserve and National Guard forces will be flown to San Diego and receive two weeks of cooking classes at Disneyland.
For Blakely, while competing in the Connelly competition was important, the reason he re-classed to become a cook is what his job means to his fellow Soldiers.
“It’s all about troop morale when you’re in the kitchen,” said Blakely, “If your troops aren’t happy, they don’t perform well. It’s all about the troops.”