Chefs master the art of competition
Senior Airman Gamaliel Serrano begins “plating” his meal during the base’s first “Chopped” cooking competition July 24 at Eglin. Five Airmen from the 96th Force Support Squadron had an hour to cook a meal with three secret ingredients. Serrano’s dish went on to win the contest. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)
by Lois Walsh
Team Eglin Public Affairs
7/25/2012 - EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Take a basket with three mystery ingredients and make it into a meal was a challenge five cooks from the 96th Force Support Squadron's Food Services mastered in the first "Chopped" competition.
The competition, a take-off on The Food Network's popular show, pitted the chefs against each other. The task was to take chicken breasts, sweet potatoes and Monterrey jack cheese and turn the ingredients into a winning meal for the judges.
Master Sgt. Dana Wright, the manager of the Breeze dining facility, said the first-place trophy and one-day pass were not the only prizes for the competitors.
"The idea was not too make it too easy; it needed to be difficult enough to make them think a little," she said. "They are all very competitive and this helps work toward personal goals and more pride in their jobs."
The cooks had access to an entire storeroom of food items to complement their dishes. Storeroom manager, Staff Sgt. Christopher Gonzalez, said some of them had experience and he expected them to "step it up" for the competition.
"We don't want to see a piece of chicken and sweet potatoes on the plate," he said. "I expect a twist on everything."
The competitors didn't disappoint. After an hour of frenzied chopping, pounding, seasoning and mixing, the cooks had a minute to take a breath. Even during the competition, the sense of camaraderie was evident as they shared hot pads, pointed out where spices were stored and made sure the oven was at the proper temperature.
Senior Airman LaToya Grover presented a plate of baked chicken with onion and peppers and candied sweet potatoes. She hopes one day to attend culinary school and open a Louisiana-style restaurant in the local area.
"The hardest part was thinking beforehand what would be the surprise (ingredients)," said Grover. "I hope mine tastes good because I'm from Louisiana and that puts extra flavor in there."
Another chef, Senior Airman Gamaliel Serrano, is a fan of "Chopped," but admits working at a pizza parlor making dough was the extent of his culinary skills when he joined the Air Force seven years ago.
"The first 10 minutes I drew a blank," he said. "But then I just went for it."
Serrano presented a parmesan chicken with pineapple on a flatbread with crème brule sweet potatoes on the side. He breathed a big sigh of relief when his plate hit the judges table with just a few seconds to spare.
One of the judges, Chief Master Sgt. Dorenda Barhorst, admitted the smells in the kitchen would make their decision difficult but the winner would be judged on presentation, taste and secret ingredient. She complemented one of the cooks, Airman First Class Giancarlo Martini, on his strawberry salad. But it wasn't enough to beat Serrano for the trophy. Martini took second with Airman 1st Class Dominique McKelvey finishing third. Also competing was Senior Airman Tara Davis.
"This encourages us to rise above in culinary arts," Serrano said after accepting the trophy. "It was a lot of fun."