By nine on a bright autumn morning, the Kaercher Futuretech field kitchen—essentially a giant, camouflaged, propane-fueled braising pan with wheels and a trailer hitch—was running at full steam outside a convention center in Erfurt, Germany. Six men and women moved around it with well-drilled precision. Dressed in chef’s whites with U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team patches on their right shoulders, they had been wielding whisks and knives since 5 a.m.
Their mission? Cook 150 three-course meals in six hours. Their menu? Seared tuna, smoked trout, and poached salmon over a seaweed salad; herb-infused turkey breast with sweet potatoes, cranberry johnnycake, and bacon-wrapped green beans; and a chocolate-mousse crunch cake with apricot-and-cherry sauce. Their opponents? Military chefs from Switzerland, Germany, the U.K., Sweden, and five other countries, all gunning for the title of top military cook in the world.
The competition was part of the IKA/Culinary Olympics, which every four years pits chefs from 53 countries against each other. While the civilians get to use gleaming restaurant kitchens, the military entrants must duel it out in tents, using the balky, German-made Kaerchers to prepare their gourmet meals. The U.S. team had been through its menu at least five times in its months of training; the chefs were on schedule and calm. Nearby, a team of glowering, mustachioed Hungarians in camo pants and combat boots was having a disastrous morning, shattering a stack of plates before the meal service even began and struggling to get a complicated vegetable-and-cod appetizer cooked all the way through.