Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif. --
The tension was high and the heat was on at the Phelps Mess Hall aboard the Combat Center Thursday. For the first time, five duos from Combat Center mess halls and the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, Bridgeport, Calif., mess hall came together to compete in the Chef of the Quarter competition. The competition showcases the culinary skills of these chefs in a competition format similar to the well known television show, the Iron Chef. The chefs were tested in multiple skill sets from written knowledge of their skill set to their performance in the kitchen.
“The chefs have to show off their skills and bring their expertise front and center,” said Maj. Richard Martinez, director of Combat Center food service program. “It is an Iron Chef type setting where the chefs are competing against each other in different settings and work on a team.”
The chefs compete in teams of two. The teams consist of two civilians, two Marines or one of each. Normally, each chow hall will hold their own competition to see which two chefs are the best to continue and compete in the Chef of the Quarter.
“It builds camaraderie between the civilians and Marines,” said Master Sgt. Marianna Martinez, food service technician. “It also gives them a chance to show skills they really don’t get a chance to show when they are working together on a regular day.”
Once the teams are chosen, they proceed to the first portion of the three part competition.
The competition begins with a jeopardy-type question. The two chefs are asked one random question based on basic food service specialist knowledge. The pairs worked together to answer the question correctly. Following the jeopardy-type question, the chefs take a written test on more basic knowledge of their job.
According to Maj. Martinez, the questions are very simple and the chefs should be able to answer them without hesitation.
The chefs take the written portions of the test separately but the scores are averaged together to make a final score the duo.
“They should not only know how to cook, but should be able to answer simple questions about their jobs,” said Master Sgt. Martinez, food service technician. “They have to work together to get the best possible scores in order to win this competition. Every portion is important.”
The third and final portion of the competition is the cooking portion. The chefs arrived at the mess hall at 7 a.m. to begin the third portion of the competition. They are faced with a container full of different foods all chosen by the judges. The chefs draw from the container and choose one protein plate, a starch plate, vegetables and a dessert plate. They also tailor a menu for the judges and make sure the plates are related.
“The plates must go hand-in-hand,” said Maj. Martinez. “They can’t serve plates from random cultures or tastes with each other. It will affect their score sheet. The judges are constantly with the chefs.”
As soon as the competition begins, judges from the food service chain of command judge the chefs on food safety, sanitation, cooking fundamentals and other responsibilities the chefs are faced with while cooking on a day-to-day basis.
While applying cooking fundamentals, the chefs are under a time hack. The product must be finished and served before the time set by the judges.
According to Maj. Martinez, The tasting judges consist of different members of the Headquarters Battalion chain of command. The judges give an un-bias view on the culinary skills of the chefs.
“It’s just like iron chef when it comes to the final portion,” said Maj. Martinez. “Things get hectic. Chefs run around grabbing what they need and trying to get it done before time is up. These chefs are all competing for bragging rights and the awards that follow.”
A first, second and third prizes were given out to the five teams competing. There is also a people’s choice based off of which duo get the most votes from the people who go through the line. During the cooking process, the judges grade the chefs on how they utilize the materials they are offered with the food they receive from the container and to be considered for the Chef Award. The winners also receive a Navy Achievement Medal and a chance to compete in the West Coast Chef of the Quarter.
The winners of the first Chef of the Quarter competition aboard the Combat Center were Lance Cpl. Nicholas Casas, Team 2 and Damien Snell, Team 2.
“We just stuck to the basics,” said Snell. “We are excited to move on and to represent our mess hall anywhere we go.”
Each installation winner from the West Coast will go on to compete in the West Coast Chef of the Quarter competition. The winners of the West Coast Chef of the Quarter receive a full-paid eight-week course to the Culinary Institute of America. The winners also will go on to compete against the East Coast winners.
“We both jumped to our feet when they asked who wanted to compete in the competition,” Casas said. “We signed up to expand our knowledge in this field and enjoy the field at the same time. We will keep competing and striving until we reach the top.”