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A dash of combat adds flavor for military chefs

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.

Many served overseas
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 Spc. 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.”

Cooking ‘at a higher level’
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 is 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.

Far cry from MREs
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 creme 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).

In the field, it’s an honor to be able to cook for service members, the cooks said — though on most of the big bases that duty is contracted out. But on the smaller, more remote bases, chefs can provide a taste of home.

When stationed in Afghanistan, Spc. Michele Maximova, who will be competing in a Jeopardy-style event called the Culinary Knowledge Bowl next week, would get up two hours before her comrades to bake cinnamon rolls.

When she had the ingredients, she’d try to give them something a little different, such as seafood salad stuffed in avocado. And at the beginning of the deployment, she got a list of all the soldiers’ birthdays and made cakes for them.

“My job was to dodge mortars and make great food,” she said.

While Maximova, who is 33 and stationed at Fort Riley, Kan., is capable of all sorts of four-star plates — she was an executive chef at a restaurant in Cleveland before enlisting — what she mostly made for her soldiers was comfort food: fried chicken or spaghetti.

Her greatest moments came when her fellow soldiers came dragging back to the base after being out in the field for days on end. They’d be tired and starving, so dirty their goggles left raccoon-like marks on their faces.

“Then you raise the lid,” she said, “and see their eyes light up.”

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