No, They Don't Flambé With a Flamethrower

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009

FORT LEE, Va., March 5 -- One of the most important rules to remember when cooking in combat: When under mortar attack, don't forget to turn off the burners before seeking cover.

Army Sgt. Craig Delarm learned that the hard way when his base in the Afghanistan mountains came under fire during one of his five overseas tours. He dived into his bunker, and while explosions rocked the base, his rice burned. No one was injured, but "the meal was ruined," he said.

Thankfully, there were no such attacks here Thursday. No insurgents. No mortars or rockets. Just the discerning stares of the white-coated judges, who rated the military cooks in the 34th annual U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition as if they were on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America."

The contest runs until March 13, when the winners will be announced, at this Army base outside Richmond. The contest features some of the armed services' best, in categories such as knife skills, cold hors d'oeuvres and even ice sculpting.

It was the first day of the "field competition," in which the cooks, on this day representing four Army bases, prepared meals in the same kind of mobile kitchen used in war zones.

Like Delarm, who's been deployed to Afghanistan twice and to Iraq three times, several members of the Fort Bragg team had served overseas. And that, they said, gave them an edge. Once you've gotten your first taste of combat, cooking a three-course meal in four hours for 60 people doesn't seem so daunting.

Even if it's a course as complicated as chicken roulade stuffed with spinach and prosciutto on a bed of caramelized red onions. Or a yeast roll with a savory sweet butter, which was actually two butters: one infused with sugar and cinnamon, the other with dried tomato, basil and garlic. That tasty accouterment, served on a dish in the shape of a scallop shell, was the creation of Spec. Michael Allen, who during his tour in Iraq last year manned a machine gun in a Humvee turret. He's headed back in August and plans to "feed my squad a good meal at least once a week."

As the 11:30 a.m. deadline approached, the cooks hurried to get their meals out to the couple of hundred people waiting at round tables under a tent. Waiters served the courses, as if in a restaurant. And the teams hoped their dishes would be good enough for a medal.

In addition to winning, the point of the competition was for the military to show off its chefs -- experts in both the art of war and the julienne. Too often, military cooks are depicted as the ones who are relegated to the kitchen because they couldn't shoot straight, chefs here said. They're the ones sweating into a huge, steaming pot, or "peeling potatoes and slopping food on a plate," said Sgt. Wayne Vandever, the leader of the Fort Bragg team.

But in today's military, "we want to show that we can cook at a higher level," he said.

And so there was smoked bacon and leek quiche with baby greens and black truffle vinaigrette, seared ahi tuna, roasted rack of lamb. There was spiced caramel flan and strawberry rhubarb shortcake with chocolate terrine, ground pistachios and crème anglaise -- all of it a far cry from the portable Meals Ready to Eat that soldiers in the field eat. (And sometimes refer to as Meals Refused by the Enemy).

This food was supposed to be good enough to be served in a fine restaurant. Sgt. Maj. L'Tanya Williams, one of the diners, said her Carolina blue crab soup was so scrumptious it would qualify to be on the menu at an even more important establishment: her dining room.

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