JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – The scent of spices and steak filled the air as Army Sgt. Andrew Shurden displayed his cooking skills at culinary team tryouts here Nov. 18-21.
If selected, Shurden, a food services specialist with the 42nd Military Police Brigade, and 15 other food services soldiers will compete in the Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event at Fort Lee, Virginia, in March.
The Lewis-McChord team will consist of eight team members, four student team members and four alternates. At the competition, the team will compete in eight events, including the Armed Forces Chef of the Year, Armed Forces Student Chef of the Year, nutrition cook-off, culinary exam, military kitchen competition, team buffet, student competitive training event and dessert.
Shurden said he has competed at Fort Lee twice before with a team from Hawaii and that he hopes his skills and experience will earn him a spot on the team. “I liked being on the team in Hawaii,” he said. “I was able to learn more about being a chef and develop my skills beyond the dining facility.”
American Culinary Federation Criteria
Shurden will need more than sharp knife skills and tasty food to earn a spot on the team. The judges will score competitors using the same criteria as the American Culinary Federation and are looking for chefs who can work well in a team and who have good work habits and strong cooking and organizational skills.
“First and foremost, we’re looking at how well these chefs work in the kitchen,” said Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jesse Ward, one of the judges at the tryouts. “Second is skills used during the food preparation. We want to know that the flavors are good and the temperatures are correct.”
At the beginning of the tryouts, team hopefuls had an opportunity to plan their menu for the cook-off. The next two days, competitors refined their menu selections and practiced cooking techniques.
Shurden has his sights set on the Armed Forces Chef of the Year portion of the competition, in which competitors have an hour and 15 minutes to cook and plate a meal using a mystery ingredient.
For the tryouts, the mystery ingredient was beef tenderloin. Shurden quickly trimmed the beef, sliced it into steaks and prepared it for the grill. His finished plate was a filet mignon on top of a blueberry red wine reduction topped with fried leeks, asparagus and layered potatoes.
A Lifelong Goal
“Before I joined the Army, I was a chef at a barbecue restaurant,” said Shurden, a Tupelo, Mississippi, native. “Meat preparation is probably my strongest skill in the kitchen.”
Shurden trained while working in a restaurant to achieve his lifelong goal of becoming a chef, but that wasn’t his only dream, he said. The aspiring chef wanted to be a soldier as well. “I joined the Army as a cook so I could serve my country and continue my career as a chef,” he said. “Being able to serve those who are serving is a rewarding to me.”
His love of cooking started long before he worked in a restaurant or a military dining facility, Shurden said. “I’m from Mississippi, and food is a big part of life back home, and it has always been important in my family,” he added. “I grew up watching my dad in the kitchen.”
Shurden said he wants to compete not just for fun, but also for the opportunities that come from participating in the largest culinary arts competition in the United States. Soldiers who do well at the Fort Lee competition often are recruited to work at the Pentagon’s dining facility.
Helping Fellow Soldiers
During the tryouts here, Shurden answered questions from younger soldiers about the meal he was preparing and the techniques he was using. “I am more than happy to teach anyone about cooking,” he said. “Sharing what I know with others is as rewarding to me as knowing that someone enjoys the food I prepared.”
At the end of the cook-off, the judges talked to all of the chefs about their food and offered critiques and constructive feedback.
“I want these guys to be able to take what they learn here and apply those skills in their unit’s [dining facility],” Ward said. “This is a good way to build motivation in the soldiers competing and also improve the quality of food in their units."
Shurden and the other competitors will find out in February whether they were selected for the Lewis-McChord team.