By T. Anthony Bell, Fort Lee Public Affairs
FORT LEE, Va. – It could be described as the furthest thing from the typical military dining facility. The formal table settings, low lights, hushed voices and servers attired in chef’s jackets all contribute to the ambiance of a fine eatery – not a place where fighting men and women are offered meals and respite from the pressures of daily military life.
It also could be described as a fine dining capstone for chefs who typically go on to become enlisted aides, those military members assigned to prepare meals for generals and admirals, diplomats and maybe even the president.
It – the Advanced Culinary Skills Training End-of-Course Meal – is a rigorous culinary proving ground designed to test student skills through the preparation of a multi-course meal for roughly 20 diners in an elegant, restaurant-like setting.
“This meal showcases the skills students have worked on for the past five weeks,” said Coast Guard Food Service Chief Jeremy Huftalen, a course instructor. “Many of them come to the course with a significant amount of culinary skills, but we ask students to incorporate what they already know with the additional skills we teach them.”
The Advanced Culinary Skills Training, taught by the Advanced Food Service Training Division of the U.S. Army Quartermaster School’s Joint Culinary Center of Excellence, helps students hone knifing skills, baking techniques, dessert preparation and buffet platter production. It also concentrates on menu development, purchasing techniques and table service among other aspects of food preparation and planning. Instructors and students represent all branches of the U.S. military.
Scheduled over two days, the end-of-course meal allows two kitchen labs consisting of 12 students each to alternately perform kitchen and serving duties.
On Feb. 11, the last end-of-course meal took place; graduation was scheduled the next day. Guests included family members, government civilians and an Air Force brigadier general. They were met by the QM School and Joint Culinary Center of Excellence leadership and escorted into the facility where servers met their acquaintance and learned of any specific nutritional or dietary concerns.
After being served with beverages, the diners were seated and reminded of the menu listings. It included a nine-course meal that included a main entrée of seared venison tenderloin with blackberry brandy compo and roasted fingerling potatoes. The dessert course featured deconstructed chocolate cake brownie with homemade caramel, brown and regular marshmallows and hazelnut brittle dust.
The event is planned and organized with a sense of exquisiteness because that is the expectation in the world of military and diplomatic relations, said Huftalen.
“What we try to do here is start from the top,” he said. “We go for the high end – tableside service and every course is prepared in the back of the house and hand-delivered by students. The atmosphere is extremely elegant and fairly stuffy, and we teach them to be as service-oriented as possible and to be attentive to our customer’s needs.”
The pressure to fulfill the expectations of guests contributed to a rough night of sleeping prior to the meal, said Marine Gunnery Sgt. April Taylor, a student who is also assigned to the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence as a basic skills instructor.
“I had a lot of dreams about what I had to do because I didn’t know what would happen,” she said. “My biggest fear was not getting my products done on time or the customers not liking it.”
None of her dreams came to fruition, she said. “I got it all out on time, and they said they loved it.”
Each student is responsible for the preparation of a portion of the meal, said Huftalen. There are no idle bodies or time and the stress level is high to produce a top quality meal before deadline.
“It is a lot of pressure,” said Staff Sgt. Maylin Matute, a Fort Riley, Kan., Soldier who completed kitchen duties the day prior. “You have to make sure you provide the best service possible and everything has to be on point.”
When it all goes well – the service is prompt, the food is prepared properly and on time, and the customers are happy – it makes for a rewarding experience, added Matute.
“That’s our ultimate purpose as chefs – that we provide the best service and make our diners happy,” she said. “That’s what fulfills us.”
It may be personally satisfying for the students, said Huftalen, but there is more to the Advanced Culinary Skills Training Course than personal satisfaction. There are the advanced skills that could impact military and diplomatic relations, training that will enhance careers, and not least, knowledge and abilities that can be used to support dining facility operations.
“That’s one of the best benefits of this course,” said Huftalen. “What you learn here can have a tremendous impact on the food served to our military members.”
Roughly 10 iterations of the advanced culinary skills training courses are scheduled yearly. The Advanced Culinary Skills Training Division also teaches a companion course – Enlisted Aide Training Course – that more specifically addresses the requirements of a general officer’s support staff.
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