By Arthur Raymond
There was nary an MRE or plate of chipped beef on toast in sight Saturday as top chefs from all five branches of the U.S. armed forces gathered to go head-to-head in a culinary showdown at the Salt Palace Convention Center.
The competition, the Freedom Chefs Challenge, was one of the highlights of a four-day convention for the Western region of the American Culinary Federation, a national association for professional chefs and culinary students. The gathering began Friday and is based at the Salt Lake Hilton, with events scheduled at locations throughout the city.
Sgt. Jason Talcott is the foods director for the Utah National Guard, an ACF member and the organizer of the challenge. He also served in Iraq and as a chef for former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen. He said the competing chefs had all worked very hard to acquire the skill level necessary for competition.
"These guys represent the top chefs in each of their respective services," Talcott said. "Many of them started out as line cooks, feeding anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 troops at a time. They have worked their way up through basic food service and culinary arts courses ... most of them now work for four-star generals."
The contest pitted two-person teams from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard against each other in a cooking area that mimicked the Defense Department's famous headquarters, the Pentagon. Contestants had 2 1/2 hours to cook and half an hour to plate their fare. No menu requirements were placed on the chefs, but the format was designed to keep it interesting. The available ingredients were kept a secret until the start of the competition - similar to the popular Food Network show, "Iron Chef America." Chef Mial Parker, a conference attendee and the coach for the Navy team, said this aspect can set an undisciplined team back in a hurry.
"Just running to the ingredient table, grabbing everything in sight and jumping in can lead to disaster," Parker said. "I advise my chefs to 'recon it' first ... see what you have to work with, create your menu ... then go." Parker said the two Navy chefs, Brandon Perry and Tom McNulty, were seasoned pros with years of experience and many previous competitions under their belts.
"They already now are discipline are already disciplined from serving in the Navy," Parker said. "They are much easier to work with than kids who are fresh out of culinary school and think they already now know it all."
About an hour into the cooking, the six judges made their first rounds, evaluating the chefs on their techniques, organization and efficiency. One of those judges, Brig. Gen. Scott Harrison of the Utah Air National Guard, said he liked what he saw at the Navy team's station.
"These guys are really good," Harrison said. "They're working carefully, cleanly and precisely...they're not panicky and they're not in a hurry."
Harrison admitted he had a prejudice for military cooks, having had "35 years of good meals coming from guys just like these."
Navy chefs Perry and McNulty put together a menu that included a complete breakfast, lunch and dinner for the judges, and Perry said they tackled the challenge "just like we do at work every day." Their offerings included a steak and eggs Benedict with béarnaise sauce (breakfast,) Cajun beef, barbecue pork and spicy shrimp with cheddar grits (lunch) and truffled, grill skirt steak served with a garlic mash potato martini.They employed a unique cooking method to poach eggs for their Benedict that involved steaming the eggs in a small, sealed plastic bag that gave them a perfect, round shape when cooked. The ovum spheres where part of an impressive and flashy presentation for the judges.
Presentations at each of the other four branches' serving tables were, visually speaking, equally impressive. Creative plating techniques showed off frenched lamb chops, plump seared scallops, thick rounds of beef tenderloin, lightly breaded fish fillets and medleys of vegetables and accompaniments that looked almost too good to eat, though the judges did not let that stop them.
After sampling the contestants' offerings, judges retreated to privately confer and compare notes. They returned, after over a half-hour of deliberation, to award the crown to Army chefs Rene Marquis and David Turcotte. Their winning array of cuisine included beef carpaccio with dijon sauce; sauted sweetbreads with a melange of mushrooms and spinach; cream of potato soup infused with tomatoes; seared scallops with baby greens and raspberry vinaigrette; lime sorbet; seared duck breast with a pan jus and beet salad; grilled skirt steak with roasted root vegetables, creamy risotto and asparagus spears and, for dessert, macerated fruit with a chocolate truffle and creme brulee.
After receiving the award, Marquis said he knew and had worked with many of his competitors and said they were all fantastic chefs ... and was proud to win the trophy for the Army.
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