JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - Odds are most soldiers have never been served osso bucco at their regular dining facility or have even heard of osso bucco to begin with, but the cross-cut veal shank dish is just one of the preparations the Joint Base Lewis-McChord culinary arts team will cook for the 38th Annual Culinary Arts Competition at Fort Lee, Va., next month.
The event, held March 6-13, is described as the "Food Super Bowl" and is the largest culinary competition in North America.
The Department of Defense will be fully represented with installation teams on hand to compete from each of the services.
The JBLM team will participate in a variety of categories to include table setup, live food preparation and the field event.
For the field event, service member chefs will be cooking in the Mobile Kitchen Tent. The MKT is an older model of the Containerized Kitchen and presents unique challenges to the competitors because of its smaller size, simpler equipment and lack of refrigeration. With little more than a month left until the big competition, the JBLM team hosted a tasting critique at the Culinary Arts Building here, Feb. 1.
In four hours, the team prepared a three-course meal for 60 service members and two civilian guest chefs. Feedback from the event and two previously conducted tastings will directly impact the final menu selections.
Sgt. 1st Class Marcos Camin, the team manager and culinary arts teacher, said the critique and the competition itself are invaluable to the development of food service specialists.
"It does a lot for the soldiers. We train them to provide better food to the soldiers in the dining facilities or out in the field," said Camin. "This gives them the insight and opens them up to new ideas. 'Who would have thought we could do this kind of cooking?"
Camin said there is a direct link between soldier morale and good food. He said it was his personal goal to train soldiers on both classical and outside-the-box techniques; for example, using sugar packets, butter and the hot sauce which comes with MREs to make buffalo sauce or replacing ingredients such as alcohol with flavored coffee creamer in dessert dishes.
"I teach soldiers, that's my job, and sometimes my soldiers are better than me and that's not a bad thing. I taught a soldier one year how to take coat hangers and tin foil to make figures, and he did a replica of [the flag raising at] Iwo Jima out of chocolate tallow and won best on the installation," said Camin. "I just show them another way."
While at Fort Lee, the soldiers will also benefit from networking, peer-to-peer training and skill specific training classes such as sugar working. The scope and size of the event can prove a little overwhelming to newcomers.
"It was really fun. There was so much going on. As a first-timer two years ago, I got caught up looking at what everybody else had done. You might have heard that this particular person is the best at this skill, and you're looking to see how they did it," said Sgt. Van Casis, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team.
He said although he medaled in each of the categories he competed in, it could be hard at times to focus on your own projects and do your best work.
Casis was unable to participate in the 2012 competition because he was deployed with his unit, but he remained in contact with the team organizers and kept his skills sharp, winning a unit-run 'Iron Chef' contest while in Afghanistan, with the hope to make the 2013 team. He even cut short his post deployment block leave to start training with the team. Casis will participate in both individual and team categories, but he really enjoys cooking in a team environment.
"It's like working in a regular civilian kitchen. You learn to move as a team. You see where you complement each other. If I see another soldier is falling behind on something I can move over and help him out," said Casis. "I think the menu is really solid this year and has great flavors. We have a good shot."
After the conclusion of the competition, Camin and his fellow instructors hope to develop a comprehensive culinary arts course for food specialists based on many of the classes they already offer.
-Sgt. Jennifer Spradin, Army.mil