Navy cooks compete in Fort Lee culinary arts event – The Virginian

March 8, 2015 Posted by admin


The place was swarming with sailors, yet there was no sea in sight.

At one end of a cavernous kitchen, a sailor stood at a stainless steel table intent on slicing carrots into identical batons.

Across the room, another swirled dark chocolate onto white plates. Nearby, yet another practiced the Escoffier method of cutting a whole chicken into four equal portions, but a tussle with a wishbone proved that she wasn’t there yet.

“This is their job right now, making the Navy proud,” said Certified Executive Chef Matthew Susienka, an elite military culinarian and supervisor of an ambitious Navy mission: capturing the Culinary Team of the Year Award and a cornucopia of individual medals at the 40th Annual Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event this month at Fort Lee.

Cooks from every branch of the military will travel from around the world to Fort Lee for the competition, which begins Saturday and is free and open to the public.

Events include timed competitions a la “Iron Chef,” ice carving, buffet table presentations and one in which cooks prepare a three-course gourmet meal out of an Army field kitchen trailer.

Last year, 20 gold medals were meted out among hundreds of entries, but only four went to sailors. This year, the Navy has flexed, big time.

A worldwide call went out for applicants. Regional tryouts were held. Twenty-five culinary specialists (that’s CS in Navy-speak) from San Diego, Japan, Guam, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., made the cut. On Jan. 20, team Navy moved into Fort Lee barracks and started cooking.

They haven’t stopped.

“This is unheard of,” Susienka said.

Six days a week, the team reports at 5 p.m., after Marine Corps cooks-in-training vacate the Fort Lee kitchen. The frenching, chopping, baking, sauteing and sous viding don’t stop until 10 hours later, at 3 a.m.

“We’re going to show the whole world what the Navy can do,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Joe Mattia, who is stationed at San Diego Naval Base. He was arranging a pleasing plate of frenched rack of lamb over a pillow of sweet potato risotto and a pool of blueberry beurre.

But, Susieska noted, he wasn’t wearing gloves, and the plate wasn’t hot – infractions that would cost precious points at showtime.

The competition is hosted by the Quartermaster School’s Joint Culinary Center of Excellence at Fort Lee.

It’s sanctioned by the American Culinary Federation, whose scoring matrix examines everything from work flow to the uniformity of chopped onions to nutrition and sanitation.

Judges can even check the scrap pile for ingredients that might have been used for something else, such as vegetable scraps for making broths.

“They’re teaching them how far a dollar can go,” Susienka said, eyeing the work of Isaac Patterson, a cook aboard the Ronald Reagan in San Diego.

Patterson, who will represent the Navy in the Culinary Team of the Year competition, had spent more than an hour coarse-chopping onions, slicing carrots into batons, making tomato concasse and “turning” potatoes – a difficult process of sculpting them into perfect football shapes.

“Every single day, we set up and do this,” Patterson said.

When he arrived at Fort Lee, Patterson could complete the required tasks in 52 minutes. He’d shaved it down to 27 minutes with three weeks to go. His goal was 20.

At the competition, members of Patterson’s team will be randomly assigned to prep tasks, including filleting fish. Across from Patterson, teammate Andrea Sison, a petty officer third class aboard the John C. Stennis based in Washington state, displayed her work on a metal tray – a flounder carcass as clean as a comb, fillets rolled up neatly and a tangle of skin scraps off to one side.

“She’s the fastest one we have with knife skills,” Susienka said. “By a lot.”

Susienka, whose official title, Enlisted Aide to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, belies what he actually does: runs the Washington, D.C., kitchen for Vice Admiral Michelle Howard, the Navy’s No. 2 in command. He supervises the competition team with Petty Officer 1st Class Marcela Ganoza, stationed at the Navy base in Yokosuka, Japan.

Both supervisors said that the competition offers benefits beyond bragging rights. For career sailors, it can be a resume booster as they move up the food chain. For others, it hones job skills that can be useful after military service. And tasty chow produced by knowledgeable cooks can boost morale aboard ships.

Three hours into a nightly practice, Susienka stopped to critique the work of Demarcos Blow, a cook aboard the Norfolk-based George Bush who will compete in the individual pastry and dessert category.

Blow had piped a series of chocolate curlicues onto a parchment-lined sheetpan, the framework for a fruit tart and chocolate-covered-strawberry dessert. The swirls looked delightful, but Susienka noted that the lines were “way too wide” and pointed to places where they wavered ever so slightly.

“You’re not going to get hammered for that, but there’s room for improvement,” Susienka said. “You need to put as much skill on that plate in the time you have. Work clean, work fast.”

Chocolate flourishes might seem superfluous on a big, bad warship, but they can make a difference.

“Sailors look forward to it,” Susienka said. “You’re away from your family for the first time. You have a bad day, and you see this? Your day just got a lot better.”

Lorraine Eaton, 747-446-2697,



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