On this Memorial Day we show our respect and offer thanks to those who serve and have served our country wearing the uniform of the U.S. military. We all know of the sacrifices that these individuals make or have made on the front lines and in support of those activities, but rarely do we think about those specialists who dedicate their time to keeping those troops well-fed.
In 2015 there were 1.4 million Americans serving in the military and nearly 22 million veterans of military service. Of the current service numbers approximately 3,000 are listed as chefs or head cooks. At some point in time all U.S. troops were served three meals per day whether in training or on active duty. From a chef’s perspective – that’s a lot of covers.
Although much of what is served may not be considered on the same level as fine dining in restaurants – our military personnel are always served nutritious, balanced meals. These meals are, in many cases, the greatest differentiator between our military wellbeing, physical health, and mental acuity. In many respects the military and private sector cook differ with regard to the ability to create signature dishes and certain conditions may prohibit military cooks from working with the ingredients that they would prefer, but in other respects there is no real difference. In both cases discipline is paramount, technique is universal, foundational skills are identical, the desire to serve is essential, and respect for the uniform and the history behind the profession is consistent.
Sometimes military cooks may have previous kitchen experience and as such join a branch of service with every intention of staying true to this profession, while in other cases an enlisted person experiences their first kitchen moments after they complete Basic Training and seek a specialization that interests them. Kitchen assistants, like a commis in a civilian operation, will pick up a few skills while providing support for cooks, but if a person chooses and is awarded a specialization in the kitchen they will follow through with more formal training through the military – eventually landing in the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence in the military Advanced Training for Cooks Program.
A base food operation will closely resemble the operations of a full-service, large-scale hotel or resort. There will be multiple outlets for food preparation and service, in some cases a commissary for bulk preparation; a sophisticated department for purchasing, receiving and distribution of supplies; catering for special events, base club operations, a comparable Executive Chef and Sous Chefs, as well as a cadre of cooks that for all intents and purposes follow the same organizational structure as what Escoffier planned through his kitchen brigade. The uniform is similar to what you find in civilian operations, the language of cooking is the same, menu planning is part of the chef’s job, cost management is still a requirement, knife skills and cooking methods are consistent, and opportunities still exist for creative presentations at special events. The military even sponsors cooking competitions, and promotes an American Culinary Federation recognized culinary team that competes in world events.
When you really look at how professional kitchens operate throughout the world it is easy to see how the military continues to influence the manner with which kitchens operate and are assessed. Since the days of Escoffier – those cooks who work in kitchens have assimilated the following method of operation from his experience in the French military:
Every cook needs to take his or her job seriously and always be prepared for the expected and unexpected. We must be disciplined in our approach towards the tasks ahead.
Professional cooks and chefs carry themselves well, look and act like professionals, treat others with respect, and are positive representatives of the position.
- TAKING RESPONSIBILITY
Professional cooks and chefs need to own their work, own the job assigned to them, and remain fully responsible for outcomes.
Professional cooks and chefs take pride in their work, the uniform that they wear, the position of cook and chef, and the role that they play in creating positive experiences.
First and foremost the cook or chef must be consistent in how he or she works, the products produced, and the results that others expect from them.
- CHAIN OF COMMAND
In all kitchens there needs to be a respect for the chain of command, in the moment. Even if the cook disagrees – there is a reason for delineation of responsibility and the order of reporting.
The cook must be there, ready to work, whenever he or she is scheduled and must be trusted to perform at an expected level. This is the first rule of action.
Kitchens on base are oftentimes just as sophisticated and contemporary as one might find in a full-service hotel, but the military doesn’t always function in a stable, perfectly designed base of operations. Sometimes military cooks and chefs need to be creative with what they are dealt. Field kitchens may not have quarry tile floors, combi-ovens, and a full battery of ranges. When in combat situations they will likely be cooking under tents, on dirt floors, with field ranges and minimal refrigeration. To this end, military cooks must be great problem solvers with a goal of maintaining the safe handling of food while doing their best to create satisfying and nutritionally sound food. Even though civilian cooks and chefs are always faced with challenges that seem insurmountable, they rarely have to be prepared for the conditions that military cooks work under on a regular basis.
Military cooks may not always face the same dangers as the combat troops that they serve, but their mission is just as crucial. A well-fed soldier is one who is ready for what he or she may face on the job.
On this Memorial Day weekend let’s all pay our respect and a tip of the chef’s toque to all who serve and have served with special recognition of those cooks and chefs who keep our troops nutritionally strong. A special shout out to retired chef and sergeant 1st class – David Russ who was a former culinary student of mine and was recognized as the army chef of the year and gold medal-winning chef on the Army Culinary Team. He served our country and our soldiers well. If you see David this weekend or any time in the future, please thank him for his service. Also: a heartfelt thanks to Chef Charles Carroll, CEC, AAC who organized Operation Hot to bring a bit of joy and some great food to our troops in Afghanistan in 2013.
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Sergeant 1st Class (retired) Chef David Russ – US Army Culinary Team
*Video Clip on Military Cooks and Chefs
*Video Clip of Chef Charles Carroll’s Operation Hot – Afghanistan