A member of Nebraska's 267th Support Maintenance Company decorates a chocolate cake with an ear of corn during the 42nd annual Phillip A. Connelly Award for Excellence in Army Food Service held at the Greenlief Training Site in Nebraska Oct. 17. Food service units from six states recently showcased their culinary abilities before a national judging panel, while competing for the title. (Photo courtesy of Nebraska National Guard)
By Mark Roland
Nebraska National Guard
GREENLIEF TRAINING SITE, Neb., (10/22/09) -- Call it the military’s version of the "Iron Chef."
Competing on a grassy plain in central Nebraska while the sounds of Soldiers conducting marksmanship training echoed in the distance, food service units from six states recently showcased their culinary abilities before a national judging panel, while competing for the 42nd annual Phillip A. Connelly Award for Excellence in Army Food Service here Oct. 17.
Working together under the ever-watchful eyes of the national inspectors, cooks from Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island and West Virginia prepared a meal for 50 Soldiers in a field environment using their unit's Mobile Kitchen Trailer, essentially a kitchen on wheels.
Along with being evaluated on their cooking abilities, the Soldiers also were graded on 10 separate areas ranging from cooking and sanitation procedures to their adherence to Army administrative, safety and supply regulations.
Simply getting to this point meant that the section, which represented a particular region in the Army National Guard’s National Field Kitchen Category, had to conduct hours of training and practice on the unit's mobile kitchen trailer to develop the level of expertise needed to be competitive.
"At first it was to get some experience for my cooks on a (mobile kitchen trailer), some field training," said Sgt. Katherine Smith, first cook for Nebraska’s 267th Support Maintenance Company. "When they go to (advanced individual training) the MKT is already popped open. They just show them what it looks like. When they actually get to cook on it, it was good experience for them."
"It just grew from there," Smith said. "When I learned that it was the first time Nebraska competed in five years, it became really important to do our best."
The work must have paid off, because the cooks had already won the state and regional competition. Still, this was the national competition, which meant that the Soldiers had to take their efforts to an entirely different level.
Chief Warrant Officer Tollie Yoder, food service officer for Nebraska's maintenance company, said the work actually started at the beginning of the year when the unit decided to compete in the competition.
"When we first talked about competing (the cooks) said 'It would be easy, I cook.' I had to explain to them that it’s more than just cooking… it’s site setup, power plan, field sanitation issues, rodent disposal, sanitary issues, taking care of ration accounting, ration accessibility, ration control, portion control, trash management, water distribution point, and water purification tasks."
Smith agreed, saying the training and preparations made a major impact on the unit’s success.
"When we learned that you have to do more to do it, it was like ‘Alright we can do this.’ Then it became really hard because we realized that we couldn’t do it with just five cooks."
Instead, Smith said, it took the work of the entire unit to help the cooks prepare for the various stages of the competition. That level of support especially came in handy when, the night before the regional competition, a thunderstorm blew in, sending the Soldiers to tornado shelters while it dumped four-and-a-half inches of rain on the training site, flooding the area the mess section had spent days preparing for the competition.
The unit halted training and moved the site to a down range location and completely set up the new site in one day.
"That was very challenging, but they overcame it," Smith said.
This weekend's competition also marked the last time these Soldiers will be together as a team. Two cooks have been transferred to another maintenance company and are preparing for deployment next year, one cook will become a wheeled mechanic to take a position in a detachment closer to home and stay in the unit, and Smith will soon change jobs because of her full-time military position.
Still, that didn’t make the Soldiers work any less hard. In fact, it actually caused them focus that much more on making sure the inspection went well.
"We all knew this was like our like our last hurrah," Smith said, "and the section wanted to do really well. Out of all the cooks I’ve ever worked with, this is probably one of the best because we got along so well. We all hope we will be able to work together in the future."
After completing the inspection, the cooks now are participating in a different type of competition… the waiting game. They should find out how if their work paid off in December when the results are releases. Smith was optimistic.
"I think we set the bar really high. I think the biggest thing is that we couldn’t have gotten this far without the unit’s support and everyone in the cook’s section really, really, really appreciates the help the unit gave us."
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