Until recent years, military cooking was never regarded as having much of a great reputation (it was considered more “slop” than anything; during World War II, K rations included a lemon beverage powder that was used to clean floors!).
Today, some of America’s best cooks can be found among the troops: Senior Chief Petty Officer (USN-United States Navy) Derrick Davenport is a culinary specialist who competed for and won the title of Armed Forces Chef of the Year in the prestigious annual (20-year-old) competition.
Training and testing cooks for top-quality cuisine is something the military now takes very seriously.
“If you had told someone in World War II that we would be having a competition to find the best military chef, they’d have laughed at you”, said Paul Morando, director of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum. “Historically, army rations were not the best-tasting meals you could get.”
And until the early to mid-20th century, cooks weren’t trained at all; they were recruited, or whichever soldier was interested enough or designated to be the cook, became the cook. Officials soon realized that trained cooks were not only needed, but crucial as a result of two factors: “In the early days, food poisoning was common,” said Sgt. Major Mike Warren (1994 Armed Forces Chef of the Year and now a competition judge). And: “The last meal a soldier gets could be his last meal.”
If troops are on the move, they’re often eating portable Meals-Ready-to-Eat, or MREs.
But at a larger base, the dining facilities are very similar to those at a college (there’s salad bars, fast food sections and customized specialty stations).
One of the benefits of the Armed Forces Chef of the Year competition is holding military chefs up to the same private industry standards sanctioned by the American Culinary Federation (which also sanctions the competition), a civilian organization, with the intention that well-trained military chefs can compete for civilian jobs when their service ends.
“The soldiers we get today have grown up with Emeril, Rachael Ray, Iron Chef…..There’s a stigma that military cooking is institutional and generic. But society has a higher expectation for chefs today. And I’d put out chefs up against any in the industry” (the army has a Training With Industry program; it’s very successful).
Current Chef of the Year winner Davenport is also preparing for an eventual return to the civilian world, juggling military duties with graduate school (going for a master’s degree in business administration).
Upon military retirement, he’d like to teach cooking and maybe open his own restaurant, with a combination of “Michigan meets French meets southern” cuisine.
Did You Know That…..
In 2012, the U.S. Armed Forces consumed:
24,884,000 pounds of cooked chicken
42, 773 gallons of soy sauce
8, 800,000 tortillas
109,000 gallons of salsa
6,072,000 pounds of ground beef
214,000 gallons of ketchup
5,250,000 gallons of milk
448,000 pounds of Thanksgiving turkey
3,100,000 pounds of cooked bacon
367,000 pounds of grits
780,000 gallons of orange juice
765,000 pounds of coffee
Sources: “Top Gun Chef” by Sarah DiGregorio-Parade magazine, May 19, 2013
Food statistics-Sgt. Major Mark Warren and the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence