FORT McCOY, Wis. –
Most people would rather fly than drive for a trip well over a thousand miles. Most people, however, are not like Capt. Long Pham. A training and readiness officer with U.S. Army Reserve Command, Pham has a lot of hobbies, including deep-sea diving, snorkeling, photography, and bowling. None of those come close to his passion for cooking and what it brings to the table.
“The food is the reason that everyone gets together,” Pham explained, “but that's secondary to getting people together and having a good time.”
The distance from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, with a brief stop in Pham's hometown Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, is roughly 1,468 miles. Pham drove every one of those miles with cooking supplies trailing right behind him.
Pham loves to cook, a skill that his mother, Ket Le, instilled in him at a young age.
“My mom was like, 'If you don't want to eat my dinner, you still gotta eat. So, you're going to do it on your own,'” Pham said with a smile.
So, he ditched the six-hour flight for a 22-hour road trip – split into three days – to make sure he had every item with him to prepare, cook and serve meals.
“I've got all my spices. I brought my knives and my cutting board,” said Pham, carrying a box of supplies to his office.
Pham is the officer in charge of the tactical operations center (TOC) for Task Force 46S training, a 2-week course designed for Army public affairs Soldiers. Pham’s official capacity at the TOC is taking care of the administrative needs of all the Soldiers involved with the training.
Knowing he would be at Fort McCoy for two months to support two training cycles, his only food requirement was to stay away from the dining facility, or DFAC.
“No, I'm not on any kind of diet, just the no DFAC diet,” Pham said with a laugh. “I enjoy doing it myself and I have the ability to.”
The TOC is a typical Army building, but he has managed to turn the place into his kitchen with the help of his tailgate and a few other tools.
Pham doesn't simply throw meat on the grill. He enjoys a sophisticated approach to cooking, such as sous-vide, a style of slow-cooking that incorporates a water bath at certain temperatures, depending on the meat.
“It helps me meal plan. I can stick things in the water bath, cook it, stick it in the fridge, then heat it up and eat it whenever I want to,” Pham said.
As Pham prepared to grill a medium-rare sirloin one evening, he covered a table with a variety of spices, cutlery and fresh ingredients.
He pulled an air-tight sealed bag from his pot as steam escaped. The smell of a seasoned steak filled the air.
A smile spread across his face.
“You can definitely smell it and this hasn't touched the grill yet,” he said.
While Pham moved through his process, Soldiers made their way toward him asking the same questions. “What's on the menu today, sir?” asked one Soldier as he stepped in for a closer look.
Pham responded, “I guess you will have to see, but make sure you are here for dessert!”
Just as Pham began to prep his crème brulee, rain pegged the windows of the building. An emergency tornado alert buzzed on his phone, yet he never broke concentration as he carefully cracked egg after egg.
“The weather shouldn't affect us much,” Pham said. “The meat will cook completely in the sous-vide. We just might not be able to sear it.”
Luckily, the tornado moved on, and Pham moved his equipment outside. The mix of olive oil and butter cracked and sizzled as the first cut of steak dropped into the cast-iron skillet.
“This skillet came pre-seasoned too,” Pham said as he brushed the meat with thyme.
Pham's knife slid through the finished product with ease, showing a rich, red tone evenly cooked throughout. “Do you guys want to come try this?” Pham offered. Without hesitation a group of Soldiers across the room darted over to see and taste Pham's creation.
For Pham, that is exactly the point. “I just enjoy other people's company. So, what's a better way to get people together … and talk, and not talk about work?” he said.
Pham judged his food a seven out of 10.
One of his Soldiers disagreed.
“It’s phenomenal,” said Sgt. 1st Class Steven Engle, a training and readiness non-commissioned officer with U.S. Army Reserve Command Public Affairs. “I don't know that I have one particular favorite because he hasn't gone wrong yet.”
Engle also knows it's not just about the food. He said Pham's love for cooking for others goes much deeper.
“I think it says a lot about his personal character and being a true leader,” Engle explained. “We have always said, ‘If you keep a Soldier fed and paid, the mission will take care of itself.’ Captain Pham is definitely doing that.”
Pham's coworkers benefit from the time spent on his creations. For him, the time is a non-factor.
“It's a good feeling for me, just to know that people are taken care of ... it's never too much work for me. Those trainers are doing the work,” Pham explained. “It's a really big thing when your Soldiers know they are taken care of.”