Hanscom SMSGT represents AF in culinary showdown

  • Published
  • By Meredith March
  • 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
An alternate Pentagon was the setting for an ambitious military collaboration April 19, when military chefs from all five services, including Hanscom's own Senior Master Sgt. Mark Veomett, converged on Salt Lake City, Utah, to prove their gastronomic prowess and emerge victorious from the Freedom Chefs Challenge, the first inter-service battle of culinary might.

The "Iron Chef"-style challenge, which pitted a team from each service against each other, was a highlight event of the 2008 American Culinary Federation Western Regional Conference, hosted by the Utah-based ACF Beehive Chefs Chapter Inc. The theme of the conference was, 'Salute to the Military and Their Chefs.'

Sergeant Veomett, enlisted aide to the Electronic Systems Center Commander Lt. Gen. Ted Bowlds, was a member of the two-person team representing the Air Force in the convention center's pentagon-shaped kitchen. "Each branch had its own side," Sergeant Veomett said.

Each team was assigned an apprentice to help with basic tasks and had 2 ½ hours to plan and prepare as many or as few courses as they preferred, while at least two courses were required to utilize the mystery ingredient, which turned out to be beef.

"We were given a common pantry list of ingredients before the competition, so we knew we would have flour, salt, pepper, common spices, common ingredients and produce and dairy-type items to work with," said Sergeant Veomett, whose teammate was Senior Master Sgt. Ibrahim Hamdan, enlisted aide to the Air Force Materiel Command Commander, Gen. Bruce Carlson.

"You do a lot of thinking on your feet. You try to go in with a game plan of what might work and what you think you can accomplish -- then hope that the mystery ingredient will fit into your menu. If not, you just line through everything and start over with what makes sense to you," he said.

The teams were judged on a variety of categories, including taste, creativity and use of the mystery ingredient, Sergeant Veomett said. The pentagon-shaped kitchen facilitated participation in a vital, points-earning category unique to this challenge: 'smack talk.'

"It was open-kitchen warfare," Sergeant Veomett said. "We referenced everything from cooking techniques to football and other sports, to the way we do business."

The kitchen's irregular shape also added transparency to the competition. "We all faced outward, so the crowd could come around and see what we were doing," the sergeant said. "There was no room to hide anything. If we made a mistake, not only could our competitors see it, but anybody who was walking around could see what was working and what wasn't."

Despite the 'smack talk,' the competition was friendly, Sergeant Veomett said. "The food was serious, but the environment was light-hearted and we enjoyed good fellowship and community amongst all five branches. We kept our recipes and ideas separate, but if somebody needed an extra tool or a small ingredient piece, there was sharing amongst all of us."

The Air Force sergeants' entry was composed of seven courses. Among the dishes were: seared scallops over wilted spinach with a saffron sauce; grilled pepper gazpacho with grilled, hot shrimp on top; a trio of tomato salads; a walnut encrusted tilapia with beef tenderloin inserted; a grilled skirt steak with citrus and a poached pear with a cheese and nut mixture, drizzled with chocolate.

Though the Army team ultimately won the competition's top honors, Sergeant Veomett was proud of the impact the event had on the judges, apprentices and other conference attendees, one of whom admitted she was expecting to see just a lot of "backpack food." 

"I don't think any of the branches put out the same food," the sergeant said. "We all had the same ingredients, but we all had different ideas. We showed a lot of diversity in our talents and imaginations.

"A lot of the civilian attendees were amazed at the variety and high level of food that was produced in the competition. Some people just presumed we put everything on a metal tray, like they did in 'M*A*S*H', but I think we showed them what food is in the military."

Sergeant Veomett said he appreciated the conference organizers' efforts to recognize military chefs their integral roles in the military mission.

"We do the cooking part and the boots part, and we also carry guns, depending on the mission. We don't just go to culinary school; we go to culinary school, stay physically fit, do military and readiness training, defend our nation and take care of our troops," he said.

"Many years ago, I was told by some senior leaders in the services community that the food we put out is part of a retention tool. Good, fresh food prepared well and done right can boost morale. We may not have access to all of the same ingredients that we used in the competition on a daily basis, but we put the same effort toward whatever staples we have to work with to give our folks the best we can."