Coast Guard FSC Justin Reed, right, slices fruit for his team's desert as FS2 Steve Bishop prepares a sauce. (Rob Curtis / Staff)
Army Staff Sgt. Scott Strippoli, left, Sgt Karson Barrett and Sgt. Brian Byrd confer on their dish. (Rob Curtis / Staff)
Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jesus Camacho, an event official, gives guidance to the entrants before the beginning the second round at the 4th Annual Military Culinary Competition. (Rob Curtis / Staff)
WASHINGTON — Military cooks from across the world gathered on a street outside the Marine Barracks Sept. 28 to determine which branch would hold bragging rights for the next year for the best cooks.
The competition was stiff, with chefs whose day jobs included cooking at the White House, and in the personal kitchens of the secretary of defense, the director of central intelligence, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, competing for a prize that included two weeks training at Disney theme parks in California or Florida, a weeklong culinary training course in New York and another in Maryland.
The contest, held by International Food Service Executives Association, was the fourth in five years. Its purpose was to give military cooks an opportunity to showcase their skills and creativity while learning from the competition, according to Ed Manley, a retired Navy lieutenant commander who now serves as IFSEA president.
Teams were given two hours to prepare a meal from a box of secret ingredients as hundreds of spectators watched from behind a rope line. Some boxes had chicken and lobster; others had pork tenderloin; still others had steak. They had to use everything in the box and could raid a pantry stocked with bay leaves, honey, brandy, almonds, olive oil and other ingredients, but could not bring any foods to the event.
When the meals were done, runners carried steaming plates — identified only by numbers so judges would not know who cooked what — past armed Marine guards and into the Marine Barracks where four secret judges sampled the fare.
When the smoke cleared after more than eight hours of cooking, a makeshift team of four Marine cooks — three from the Marine Corps commandant's mess and another from a mess at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. — had beaten out the 15 other teams.
And an Army Reserve team from Missouri made up of a University of Missouri Reserve Officer Training Corps midshipman, a Navy Reserve ensign, an Army Reserve sergeant, and an Army Reserve second lieutenant took second place. They won 1,000 dollars each.
‘Like the Spartans'
Marines from the winning team noted that they were the Marine Corps' only representative while other branches sent as many as four teams — some of whose members had been cooking together for years. The Marines compared themselves to the small outfit of Greek soldiers portrayed in the movie "300."
"We are like the Spartans," said Gunnery Sgt. Andrew Atkinson, a native of St. Catherine, Jamaica who has been a Marine cook for 16 years. "We take on anybody. The other branches were like the 10,000. We were the 300. We will take them on any time, any place. We are the smallest branch of the armed forces but we pack a lot of punch."
"[Other branches] had teams dedicated to competitions," added a second team member, Gunnery Sgt. Dennis O'Leary, a Marine cook for 14 years. He added that the team members had never cooked together before they were called by the group's leader, Gunnery Sgt. Andrew Atkinson, who knew the three other men and thought they were the right men for the job. He said that proved to be one of their strengths.
"For us, because we work with so many Marines, we become accustomed to learning [one another's] strengths and weaknesses," O'Leary said. "For them, working with one another becomes second nature."
"Things change because of surroundings. We adapt to our surroundings," he said, adding that their only burner went out and they had to alter a recipe because the wind kept blowing the heat away from a pot.
Participants could not practice beforehand because they didn't know what they would have to work with, but Gunnery Sgt William Allison said the men did discuss possible recipes given the foods that they might be given.
In the end, the Marines were given chicken and lobster and prepared a meal of pan seared palenta lobster, herb tomato timbale with spinach and lemon basil vinaigrette, chicken breast supreme, herb mushroom farce, herb risotto with toasted pine nuts, tourney carrots with green beans.
That meal, and others like it, which were placed on a table after the judges finished with them, impressed at least one spectator.
"Maybe I should have joined the military," said Tanya Wallace, a civilian from nearby Temple Hills, Md., who watched the final round of cooks prepare their meals behind the food display. "This is not what I expected."
To organizers and participants alike, one of the major reasons for holding this fourth culinary contest in five years was to debunk the myth that military cooks stick to hamburgers and fruit cocktail.
"We're not slop and go," said Army Staff Sergeant Scott Strippoli, who works in the Joint Chiefs' mess and competed with that team Saturday. "There are actually some really good chefs in the military."