Food Fight

Iron Chef, Armed-Forces style

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.

But as the clock ticked down to zero, the U.S. team was scrambling to deal with a slight glitch: the field kitchen was throwing off so much steam that water had begun to condense on the inside of the tent and rain back down on the food. “Can we get something plastic?” shouted Army Sergeant Matthew Flemister. “It’s dripping right on our plates!” Toward the back of the tent, Army Specialist Valine Vukich, a petite, tattooed former sous-chef from Chicago, was busy wiping spoiled chocolate motifs off pristine Villeroy & Boch china and reapplying them with a pastry bag, all the while darting watchful glances at a chocolate mousse in danger of congealing.

This year’s team was selected through an Army-sponsored competition that any active-duty military chef can enter. Held annually in Fort Lee, Virginia, it’s the largest military culinary competition in America. The Army sees it, and the team it produces, as a morale boost for soldiers, whose meals benefit from the skills the Army’s chefs pick up in training. The Culinary Arts Team is also a draw for potential recruits: enlisted chefs can use their Army training to find jobs as everything from gourmet chefs and caterers to ice sculptors when they muster out. Sending the team to civilian competitions in the U.S. and abroad is also a PR effort, targeted with a sniper’s accuracy: the Culinary Olympics attracts some of the restaurant world’s top civilian talent. “It’s important to show all these other chefs that military chefs can really shake and bake,” said Army Chief Warrant Officer4 Robert Sparks, the team’s manager and a veteran of four previous Culinary Olympics.

This year at Erfurt, the Americans came in second to the Swiss, outscoring eight other countries. (The Hungarians came in sixth.) For some team members, the outcome represented a vindication of sorts. “I’m trying to beat the stereotype of can-to-pan cooking,” said Petty Officer Second Class Edward Fuchs, who usually cooks for 50 sailors on a Coast Guard cutter based in Cheboygan, Michigan, as he watched his teammates garnish their appetizers with whale-tail-shaped crackers. “We’re all issued more than a can opener and a box cutter.”