Field kitchen heats up for steamy competition

By Staff Sgt. Brad Miller | Exercise News Day | July 24, 2018

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — A slightly overgrown open field, surrounded on three sides by towering evergreen trees, sits beneath a nearly cloudless sky. A mildly cool breeze bends the grass to its will, leading to the majestic presence of the snow-capped Mount Rainier that looms over the small, mobile kitchen trailer at the edge of the training area.

In this MKT, food service specialists under the wing of Staff Sgt. Matthew Cullen, the senior food noncommissioned officer with the 321st Expeditionary Military Intelligence Battalion, prepare for a steamy competition in the Philip A. Connelly Program for the first time at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, July 17, as a part of exercise Always Engaged 2018. The Philip A. Connelly Program, a competition in which Army cooks prepare and serve food from scratch in a field environment, was established on March 23, 1968, to recognize excellence in Army food service.

Teams are judged on a 1,000-point system covering food taste, procedure, security, sanitation and Army regulation knowledge. 

“This competition includes everything concerned with field feeding by the book,” says Sgt. William Thorn, a food service specialist with the 321st EMIB. “As Reserve Soldiers, we’re usually just cooking in garrison, and we don’t get to cook in the field very often. Coaching your cooks to do everything correctly with the proper food handling and correct temperatures for a field environment is a different type of training.”

Cullen describes the biggest challenge to overcome as coordinating all of the logistical elements and creating time for training. As Reserve Soldiers, they only get the opportunity to train a few days each month. During those days, they have to feed everyone and still work in time to train on the particulars for the competition. 

“We’ve had to bring Soldiers in on orders to get certified on particular tasks, taking time away from their civilian lives and jobs to achieve this mission,” says Cullen. “This is not the type of food we would normally cook out here in the field. This is the kind of food that if we were competing in garrison, we would shine, so you can imagine how it will look preparing this quality of food in a field environment.”

In the days leading up to the launch of this year’s cook off, the Soldiers under the care of Cullen and Thorn are reading through food service field manuals and training materials on food preparation standards. 

The team also conducts practical exercises by cooking meals with fresh ingredients in the MKT to the standards of the competition. The NCOs want to ensure the cooks are prepared and confident in performing under pressure. 

“You get graded on everything,” Thorn explains. “They ask you a bunch of questions, almost like sitting on a board, but while you’re actually working. They will throw food service board questions at you, like ‘which AR (Army Regulation) covers food service?’ type of thing.”

The setup and practice has not been without its challenges, such as getting the required supplies and generator difficulties. However, Thorn is thankful for the support he receives from his unit and all of the support elements within the battalion that lend helping hands along the way.

“It’s a competition for the whole unit, which a lot of people don’t realize,” Thorn says. “It’s not just the cooks – it’s the commander, the maintenance and, well, everybody is working together to make this happen.”