CAMP BLANDING, Fla. – –
CAMP BLANDING, Fla. – Several Soldiers stood in an open field in northern Florida, casually conversing on the warm weather. Less than 15 feet away, U.S. Army Soldiers chopped vegetables, boiled water,s immered meat, baked bread and used every possible minute to prepare to feed several dozen hungry Soldiers the morning of March 17, 2017.
Their menu, along with their food preparation and knowledge of Army food service operations, were all being carefully overseen and judged by evaluators. The reason was a prestigious one – the culinary team from the 391st Military Police Battalion made it as finalists: one of four remaining culinary teams competing in the Department of the Army’s Philip A. Connelly Awards Program for Excellence in Army Food Service.
“It’s one of our only opportunities to shine as a profession in food service,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Pamela Null, the U.S. Army Reserve Command Food Advisor and lead evaluator from the Army for the Connelly Competition. “It’s a joint effort with a civilian organization – in this case the National Restaurant Association – and it closes the gap between the civilian food service world and military food service world.”
Null was joined by Chief Warrant Officer Kim R. Shiner, USARC Food Service Technician, and Samuel Stanovich, area representative for Firehouse Subs for northern Illinois and northwest Indiana, the civilian evaluator as part of the Connelly Competition.
“The competition itself is a tremendous amount of work,” said 1st Lt. Norman Large, Battalion Food Service Officer, who led the team from the 391st in the competition.
That work began more than a year and a half ago for the culinary team, and took them through competition against all of the U.S. Army Reserve culinary teams – which they beat – and into the Connelly.
Their experience ranged from three years to 40 years of culinary experience but for the majority of them, this was their first time competing at the Army-wide level.
Competition dictates a very strict timeline. After a morning presentation, the culinary team had exactly four hours to prepare meals for more than 50 troops, and no more than one hour to serve. The pace in the mobile kitchen tent, or MKT, was non-stop and thorough. First they sanitized, then began to prepare the food, as cooking and baking flowed into organizing the food line prior to opening. Throughout it all, evaluators were never more than a few feet away, watching and inspecting; but quiet sentinels they were not.
“What are you doing? Why? What’s your next step? What does the manual say?”
They drilled these questions even as the competing Soldiers participated in the various facets of food service.
As preparation continued in the MKT, a nearby tent stood as the sanitation team; cleaning and sending runners back and forth to replace knives, pots, and food containers. Nearby, two more Soldiers checked the water quality in the water buffalo and prepared the dining tent with condiments, drinks and utensils. The evaluators inspected them and quizzed them on operations as well. Soldiers were all held to the same standards as their active duty counterparts.
“These competitions are even more critical for the Reserve Component since units are less exposed to full spectrum field food service operations,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Charles F. Farran, with the 200th Military Police Command. “It helps in building a cohesive team between supply, maintenance, food service, medical, and preventative medical sections.”
Competing at the Connelly level is a full unit effort, and for an Army Reserve unit, that means they’ve checked the most important boxes: they are ready to deploy and to fight.
“This gets us more prepared for the battlefield,” said Sgt. Matthew Lewis, culinary noncommissioned officer for the 391st MP Bn. This was the first time competing at the Connelly for the Springfield, Ohio, native. Lewis was rarely stationary – checking on the sanitation team, answering questions from the evaluators, reviewing recipes, ensuring all the tables and chairs were set in the dining tent, all aspects of preparation had to be checked.
Once the preparations were done, the final test began.
One of the evaluators was the first to eat to make sure everything was complete and cooked properly to the right temperate. Following that, the food service line opened to other Soldiers while another evaluator stood by, watching the operation. Once all the Soldiers have been through the line, the second evaluator eats last, checking to see if anything has dried or became cold. This is to ensure the food is still as good at the end of service as in the beginning.
Upon the final bite, the evaluators gathered the entire unit to give them a short briefing, recognizing two Soldiers for their efforts but keeping the final score secret. The Soldiers from the 391st must wait until the National Restaurant Association Show – the largest food service show in the Western Hemisphere – in May in Chicago to find out if they won.
Regardless if they win or not, the Army Reserve Soldiers now have something that not only sets them apart from their peers in the military but prepares them for jobs in the civilian world.
“It’s another value resume item,” said Stanovich, “being recognized as a Connelly finalist, and hopefully a lot of them over the years will win Connelly awards. (This) will help them propel themselves against the other competition that are looking for the same job.”