COLUMBUS — Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with saying, “An army marches on its stomach.” The French commander had something there, as today’s modern army is well aware.
Military leaders believe a well-fed soldier is an effective soldier. To that end, the U.S. Army’s annual Philip A. Connelly Awards encourage excellence in food service, with emphasis on preparation, taste, nutrition, service and teamwork.
The program co-sponsored by the Department of the Army and the International Food Service Executives Association brings together some of the best cooks in uniform. Six of them were in Columbus this month for a two-day training blitz with Chef Josh Oubre of the Mississippi University for Women Culinary Arts Institute.
“The Army sends us their competition cooks,” Oubre said. “Since they’re already trained in sanitation and cooking, we focus on increasing their skill set in flavor composition and plate presentation — making food taste better and look better, adding flavor without compromising nutritional value.”
Sgt. 1st Class Ruby Daughtry-Brown, of the 223rd Engineer Battalion of the Mississippi Army National Guard, led the group that converged at MUW.
“We have people here from multiple units who have their sights set on entering the Connelly Cup. It’s the most prestigious thing anyone in Army food service can enter,” the Ocean Springs native said.
In commissary or centralized institutional cooking, such as military units, cooks may have little flexibility in menu, Oubre pointed out. The creativity, then, comes in the preparation.
“We want to get beyond cooking with just salt and pepper. … There are lots of dried herbs and spices that people tend not to take advantage of,” the chef said. “Not everybody knows how to use tarragon, or sage or rosemary, and those are things you can get in a store relatively easily.”
Preparing traditional Army menu items like roast turkey and gravy, cornbread dressing, Mexican corn onion soup, potatoes, corn O’Brien, a spring salad and a Florida lemon cake with cream cheese frosting, team members learned about enhancing what they are given to work with.
Oubre circulated among cooking stations, where soldiers in camo ACU’s (Army combat uniform) and laced boots worked. With one, he gave advice on creating a perfect crust for blackened turkey. At another he advised on flavorings to add to corn O’Brien, a peppy side dish made with corn, bacon, green peppers, onions, salad oil and pimento.
Spc. Tarus Rush of the 307th cooks for about 150 people every weekend his unit is activated.
“He’s teaching us to use less salt, which isn’t good for us, and pepper — to use other herbs and spices to bring out the special flavors in food,” Rush said.
Chef Josh uses The American Spice Trade Association’s guide to “flavorprints” as a useful tool when teaching flavors and flavorings. It identifies spices that distinguish national cuisines and add interest and excitement.
For example, when cooking Italian, garlic, basil, oregano, rosemary, sage and marjoram are among spices that can add life to a dish. For French cuisine, tarragon, chervil, thyme or saffron might be called for. Various Indian foods may benefit from chilies, cumin seeds, mint, turmeric, anise seeds, cilantro or red pepper.
Soldiers also got information on specific herbs, their taste, and how they can enhance menu staples from soups to salads.
Arugula, chervil, Italian parsley or thyme are a few of the herbs that can wake up certain soups. Particular meats and poultry can be elevated with a little marjoram, rosemary, sage, savory or sorrel.
“There are always ways you can improve a dish with flavorings,” Oubre stated.
The second day of the training workshop concentrated on the food — after it’s cooked.
“We work on plate presentation, color composition and architecture concepts that are involved in presentation of food,” Oubre explained. Architecture as it applies to food includes, for instance, “how the food should sit up; a tall presentation, with multiple colors, is more appealing to the eyes,” noted the chef.
“I love a classroom setting,” said Daughtry-Brown. “Josh is providing us expertise with all the food, giving us training we can take back to our units, and even our homes. This all helps us provide a really good meal for soldiers, out in the field or at home, and to make our units shine.”
Jan Swoope/The Commercial Dispatch