Fort Meade: Ranking above standard mess hall fare

Sgt. 1st Class James Duff, a food service specialist with the 200th Military Police Command, will be reporting for duty at Fort Meade this month.

March 17, 2010|By Rob Kasper

If it is true, as Napoleon said, that an army moves on its stomach, then some Army reservists at Fort Meade will soon be soldiering in style.

Sgt. 1st Class James Duff, a food service specialist with the 200th Military Police Command, will be reporting for duty at Fort Meade this month. This is the mess-hall equivalent, I gather, of having Maryland sharpshooter Greivis Vasquez show up on your pickup basketball team.

Duff is on a roll. Last week he managed a team of 12 that picked up a potful of medals - four gold, 11 silver and seven bronze - at the U.S. Army's Culinary Arts Competition at Fort Lee, Va. They finished fifth in a field of 12 teams.

Among the meals that garnered medals for Duff's team was one that featured a filet of sole appetizer, a loin of lamb wrapped in sausage, and a strawberry consomme served on chiffon croutons with an oatmeal lace cookie and salted melon. This meal, by the way, was prepared using a CK, or containerized kitchen, the kind of field equipment Army units usually haul around behind a truck.

Duff's Army Reserve Culinary Arts Team had made a pretty good run for the top honor of being named IOY, or Installation of the Year. This honor, I was told, usually goes to big, active-duty operations, such as the one from Fort Bragg. N.C. During the course of our conversation, Duff explained various facets of the Army's annual cooking competition. From time to time, I had to stop him to have him explain what various abbreviations meant.

Duff and members of his team are in the U.S. Army Reserve. They live throughout the United States and meet for AT, or annual training. Duff resides in Lincoln, Neb. He said the full roster of the team numbers 20, representing 17 states. Eight members of the team were not able to attend the Fort Lee contest because they were deployed for overseas duty.

Duff started getting ready 12 months ago for this year's competition by organizing a series of training and planning sessions. The team met twice at Fort Meade, once for a cook-off to pick new members in the fall, and then again in June.

The poached sole appetizer served at the field kitchen event was "right out of Escoffier," Duff said, referring to the 1890 cookbook that is a classic of French cooking. The lamb loin also turned out well, he said. "Those field ovens can get up to 600 degrees," he said.

Duff was especially proud of the dessert. The chiffon crouton was "dipped and cooked like French toast," he said. It was followed by a layer of ricotta, the oatmeal lace cookie and the salted melon, he said. When the warm strawberry consomme was added, it melted all the components. "You got sweet, savory, bitter tastes," he said. "It hit all the senses."

Duff, 42, said he has been working in restaurants since he was a teenager.

"When I was 13, I was washing dishes at Shoemaker's Truck Stop in Lincoln, Neb.," he said. From there, he went on to work at various restaurants, including McDonald's, Burger King and Bonanza. He eventually became a self-employed trouble-shooter, visiting struggling restaurants and recommending changes. After joining the Army Reserves in 2002, he put his culinary training to use, picking food service as his MOS, or military occupational specialty. Along the way, he won a Philip A. Connelly award, an honor the Army and the International Food Service Executives Association bestow on promising Army cooks.

This is the third year that Duff has participated in the competition at Fort Lee. The competition, now its 35th year, started as a contest for Army cooks but in recent years has expanded to teams from all branches of the military. Its purpose, as its Web site states, "is to showcase the talents of military chefs from around the globe in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces."

When I asked Duff who got to eat his field kitchen lunch of sole, lamb and strawberry consomme, he said, "The first 80 people who got in line." The competition, I learned, is open to the public, and folks queue up early in the morning to buy the $4.25 lunch tickets.

Duff did tell me that there was a VIP table, where several generals dined. Rank has its privileges.

When I think of Army food I think of MREs, the Meals Ready To Eat that have a shelf life of three years and have to be able to withstand being parachuted in from 2,000 feet.

Now I guess when I think of Army food, I will have to think about strawberry consomme.

Duff was cagey when I asked him how the food he cooked at the competition will compare with the meals he will prepare for the next 60 days at Fort Meade.

"There is a standard Army menu card," he said "I don't think you have to take anything away from it. But I think you can add things to it to make meals exciting."

Soldiers: Get ready to dine.

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