By T. Anthony Bell, Fort Lee Public Affairs
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FORT LEE, Va. – Linked by their love of creating exquisite cuisine, three teams ignored language and cultural differences and allowed their food to do the talking during the International Challenge of the Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event here March 10.
France, United Kingdom and the United States were represented at the four-and-a-half-hour meet on the next-to-last day of the MCACTE. The challenge was a showcase of different cooking styles and ideas as each team prepared a four-course meal from a mystery basket of ingredients.
“Each country has its own culinary culture,” noted Chief Warrant Officer 3 J.D. Ward, Advanced Culinary Training Division manager at the Joint Culinary Training Center. “The U.S. tends to be more experimental while the French are more traditionalist. That’s what makes this competition particularly fascinating to watch … the mixture of risk-taking and well-honed culinary skills that countries like France have perfected over the years.”
British Army Warrant Officer Class 1 Jon Hall, who holds the special designation of “Conductor” (head chef) in the Royal Logistics Corps, agreed, saying the U.K. team would “blend traditional and modern cooking together to show the full range of their talent and skill.”
Lt. Col. Michel Comas, French liaison officer at CASCOM, said the hardest part about the International Challenge is what the competitors from his country must do to adapt their techniques to the rules while keeping the result “truly French.”
This year’s mystery basket included beef chuck shoulder tenders, whole salmon, pork belly, whole young guinea fowls, shrimp, eggplant, purple kohlrabi, mustard cabbage, orzo, bulgur, dragon fruit, white chocolate, cranberries, maple syrup and golden pineapple. Under the rules of the event, each product had to be used in at least one of the courses.
Upon learning the mystery ingredients, the teams displayed different personalities.
The French duo – Chief Petty Officer Christophe Ferreira and civilian chef Laurent Mari – talked with their hands as much as their mouths as they feverishly planned their menu. Once the game plan was complete, the two began a frenzied and energetic dance in the make-shift kitchen.
The United Kingdom’s team – Warrant Officer Jamie Webb-Fryer and Lance Cpl. Lee Berry – calmly opened the boxes containing the mystery ingredients and seemed to speak casually about how they would combine the foods for each course. The two men displayed a quiet confidence as they moved with purpose to their stations.
In actuality, Hall revealed the U.K. team was unnerved when they opened their mystery basket because it contained a vegetable the competitors had never seen before – the purple kohlrabi.
“The hardest part about the international challenge is understanding the American ingredients,” Hall said. “But the sign of a real professional chef is to be able to make a great meal with any ingredients.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. team – Sgt. 1st Class Motavia Alston and Sgt. Joseph Hale – exhibited neither anxiety nor excitement upon opening the mystery basket. The team members hunched over the stainless steel counter together and discussed the menu quietly, then systematically moved about the kitchen.
The resulting menus were as diverse as their team personalities. The French competitors created guinea fowl soup and raviolis; vegetable tart with shrimp fritters; parsnip sphere and salmon in a white wine sauce; and crispy chocolate cranberries with white chocolate ice cream.
The team from United Kingdom cooked up king prawn in panko with a tropical fruit chutney; Thai beef salad; pan-seared salmon on a bed of creamed leeks, mushroom ravioli, buerre blanc and orzo; and pineapple meringue, pineapple sorbet and granola.
The American team prepared smoked-potato bisque with seared guinea fowl breast and tomato relish; asparagus and ricotta tartlet citrus poached salmon; maple glazed pork belly and glazed beef sausage; sautéed prawn with cabbage and an apple, eggplant and bulgur wheat puree with a guinea fowl jus; and milk chocolate mousse with hazelnut truffle center and white chocolate sponge, cranberry sauce, macerated fruit and orange ice cream.
While the teams’ cultures, cooking styles and menus were very different, the competitors demonstrated their dedication to two things they have in common – preparing good food and the shared respect for choosing to do so while serving the armed forces of their home countries.
“The international competition is about building partnerships and sharing best practices,” said Lt. Col. Damon Varnado, director of the JCTC.
The U.S. Army culinary program “would not be where it is today” without these partnerships, according to Ward who added, “The United Kingdom helped us get into the Culinary Olympics and the World Cup (two of the largest culinary competitions and exhibitions in the world).”
“The competitors are very happy to be here with each other,” Varnado said. “It’s a chance to learn from different chefs and see the varied artistry of this business.”
Comas agreed, “It’s not so much about the competition as it is about meeting people who have the same passion for cuisine.”
Under the American Culinary Federation point system, each team received a silver medal at the awards ceremony in the Lee Theater Friday. Of the cooking styles, it seems the blend of traditional and modern cooking won the day, as the United Kingdom earned the most points and took home top honors.
Nonetheless, the competitors were clear from the beginning that the time together, learning from each other, was the real piece of gold they took home with them after the event.