CAMP ATTERBURY, Indiana — Beads of sweat rolled down Sgt. Matthew Lewis’ forehead as he paced through hot plumes of steam on a humid, 90-degree day at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, June 23. With his face buried in a checklist, he managed to make sure the food stayed hot while cooling his team’s nerves with encouraging words.
“Alright guys, keep it up; we’ve got about 50 minutes till we go hot,” said Lewis, a U.S. Army Reserve culinary specialist from Springfield, Ohio, with the 391st Military Police (MP) Battalion.
“We call this crunch time. The last 30 minutes is usually the worst part of the competition; they either maintain or they completely fall apart. This group is most likely going to keep it together,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Pamela Null, a food advisor from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with the U.S. Army Reserve Command.
Professionalism is just one factor units are graded on during the Philip A. Connelly Competition.
The Army-wide awards program was established in 1968 and named after Philip A. Connelly, the former president of the International Food Service Executives Association. From March through December, food advisers like Null travel the nation to judge units selected to compete in the competition.
“The best part about the program is that it demonstrates Soldier readiness and teaches the Soldiers to follow the standard that’s expected of them, while still serving nutritious meals that taste good, too,” Null said.
Army Reserve Units conduct their portion of the competition in a field environment, and they only have four hours to prepare, cook and begin serving a meal. After that, they have only one hour to make sure everyone is fed, including themselves. The cooks also manage Soldiers who perform other kitchen-related duties.
“It’s more than just food service,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Kim Shiner, a food adviser with USARC from Van Meter, Iowa. “It’s KP duty, field safety and sanitation, force protection and the support from their command; all of those aspects can make or break a team.”
The 391st was one of 10 units from the Army Reserve’s major subordinate commands competing. The four teams that show they can meet and exceed the standard will be chosen to move on to compete at the U.S. Army Reserve Command (USARC) level.
“The 391st MP Bn. has been chosen to represent the 200th MP Command for a few reasons,” said 1st Lt. Norman Large, the food service officer in charge from Gatlinburg, Tennessee. “We actually have a complete staff, we’re professional, and many of our cooks are experienced on the civilian side as well."
“Take Spc. Dubois, for instance, he’s been making crepes, dinner rolls and loaves of bread from scratch,” Large continued. “That’s not something many units have to offer on their menu.”
Spc. Sean Dubois is a certified chef and earned an associate’s degree in baking and pastry art. For him, making food takes on another form.
“I love to express myself through the art of making food. I don’t believe in messing food up. You’ve just created something else,” said DuBois, also an Army Reserve culinary specialist with the 391st, from Euclid, Ohio. “And nothing is the same twice, no matter how you make it. Therefore, it’s always a new experience for me.”
“Right now, I’m squeezing oranges to make orange-zest crepes with blueberry sauce and homemade whipped cream. Later, I’ll be making fresh dinner rolls and whole-wheat bread,” he said. “It is so much better for the Soldiers, too. It doesn’t have any preservatives, and compared to what’s found in store-bought bread, it’s lower in calories and fat.”
Although the homemade aspect of the menu was a plus, the 391st Soldiers knew they had to put in more work if they wanted to set themselves apart from the competition.
“December was the first time we practiced this meal, and let me tell you, it was the most miserable weekend one could have in Ohio; it snowed the whole time,” Large said. “I really think practicing in that austere environment helped because the weather here has either been blazing sun or thunderstorms. We got here on the 13th, and we’ve been nonstop ever since. We’re up at 6 a.m., and we don’t go to sleep until at least 10 p.m. Last night, we were up until 1 a.m. practicing our security positions and our in-brief presentation.”
“That was one of the best in-briefs I’ve seen,” Null said. “Just the way it was conducted. Everyone was professional, and they actually followed the standard. That already puts them ahead.”
Professionalism and standards, two of the Army’s main ingredients, are major aspects judges look for in this competition.
“Overall, the team did really well. They were professional, with good attitudes, esprit de corps and a willingness to learn. When I was out there, it gave me a sense of pride to see culinary specialists enjoying their jobs and producing food that the Soldiers enjoy,” Null said.
“You know, even if we don’t move up to the next round, I have a lot to take away from this experience,” Lewis said. “It definitely helped me realize that not everything goes as planned, and that’s when we have to come together, adjust and put the mission first; and that’s feeding the Soldiers.”