By Chad Stewart

Food, air and water—three basic ingredients needed to sustain human life. And the military’s food service specialists provide two of the three.

While that seems a bit melodramatic, keep in mind that without proper nutrition and hydration, service members would have a hard time carrying out their already difficult missions.

Marine Gunnery Sergeant Wilfred Castillo, who has spent his entire 21-year career cooking, teaching and running kitchens around the world, believes his job is critical to the military’s overall success.

“I’m a firm believer that we are the most important [job] in the armed services,” he said emphatically. “I don’t go to anyone else’s office on a daily basis, but everybody else comes to my office three times a day and twice on the weekends.”

Gunnery Sgt. Wilfred Castillo teaches Marines during field mess training at Camp Kinser, Okinawa, Japan, in 2012. | Photo credit Marine Corps photo

Army Sergeant 1st Class Dianara Johnson agrees. “Everyone needs to eat. If you don’t eat and fuel your body, you can’t complete your mission.”

Castillo and Johnson are Basic Food Training Division instructors at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence (JCCoE) on Fort Lee, Virginia, where future Army, Navy and Marine Corps cooks go to learn how to feed a hungry military. It’s also where the Air Force trains its culinary specialists, though they participate in a program separate from the other three branches.

Incoming students assigned to the basic training program arrive at JCCoE straight from boot camp. A majority of them don’t know their way around the kitchen and some don’t even know how to hold a knife properly, according to Castillo.

A select few arrive with some previous culinary training, but Johnson said most of the skills learned elsewhere do not apply to military cooking.

“Some of them have a skill set and some of them have taken classes in high school. However, when they get [to JCCoE] … it’s different,” she said. “The basics of military cooking are different than what you’ve been taught by your grandmother, mother or even some of the things that they’ve learned in the culinary classes.”

Inspired by celebrity TV chefs, some students walk into the kitchens at Fort Lee thinking that they’ll leave with the knowledge they’ll need to become culinary artists. But the instructors stop that train of thought in its tracks.

“I tell the students here all the time, ‘You’re not going to leave here be ing an Emeril (Lagasse) or Gordon Ramsay,’” Johnson said. “It’s our responsibility to give you those basics so you can build on that [foundation] and become successful in your career.”

Starting with the fundamentals, students are taught knife skills, nutrition, culinary terms and the principles of kitchen and food safety before they cook anything. Food sanitation is serious business in any culinary setting, but is especially critical in the armed forces. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Helen Speight, another instructor at JCCoE, explained that the military’s standards of cleanliness are much higher than those in the civilian world, and for good reason.

Because troops are generally dining together at same facility and are often eating the same dishes, any contaminated food served up by the kitchen staff could easily harm a large number of personnel in a short amount of time, wreaking havoc among the ranks. The military can’t afford to suspend or abandon exercises, missions and operations because of an outbreak of food-borne illness, so it institutes strict food-handling guidelines to avoid those dangerous scenarios.

Then-Sergeant Dianara Johnson mentors soldiers while they prepare a batch of cheddar biscuits at Coalition Cafe on Camp Victory, Iraq, in 2008. | Photo credit Army photo

After spending at least a week learning safety skills in a classroom, students move to the kitchen and enter the next phase of training, where soldiers, sailors and Marines start learning how to cook. Instructors demonstrate the skills needed to prepare the dishes, and the pupils do their best to put them into practice.

So which dishes are part of the curriculum?

“They’re taught how to cut a chicken into eight pieces. They also learn how to make baked fish, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, gravy—that’s the cooking side,” said Speight, a 15-year Navy veteran. They also learn to bake cinnamon rolls, pies, cookies, biscuits and muffins.

For their practical exam, Johnson explains that students have to prepare a three-course meal and dessert before they can progress to the third phase of training. The exam menu consists of spaghetti with meat sauce, green beans and a tossed salad. They finish off the meal with a cake made from scratch and frosted with a homemade buttercream icing.

The menu doesn’t seem too complicated for people who cook regularly, but when you add in the military’s strict guidelines and procedures, the difficulty level increases. In the U.S. military, a “pinch of this and a dash of that” is not how food is prepared.

“With dining facilities, everything is pretty much standardized,” Johnson said. “Cooks have a little bit of a [freedom] but everything has to be accounted for [in the dish].”

Each branch of the military works off of the Armed Forces Recipe Service index and, in true military fashion, each service has a different name for it. With access to more than 1,700 recipes, military cooks have a bevy of options at their fingertips, but they have to follow the instructions. Experienced food service specialists are given leeway to improvise on the fly, but the basic training students at JCCoE stick to the recipe cards.

Asked which dishes are the most popular among today’s troops, Castillo instantly declared chili-mac and grilled cheese the undisputed winners. “It’s known throughout the world,” he boasted, referring to the armed forces’ famed chili macaroni recipe. Johnson said yakisoba, a Japanese dish of stir-fried noodles, is also a favorite.

The Army and Marine Corps send their students through a third phase—garrison and field operations—where students spend three weeks learning how to operate a dining facility, maintain equipment and serve meals. These students are also taught how to cook, clean and set up and tear down a kitchen in a field environment, which can test their skills of maintaining the military’s sanitation standards. These crucial skills are needed to support troops participating in exercises and warfighters stationed at austere forward operating bases.

The sailors in the program have separate galley training, where they learn how to cook aboard a ship, where kitchen space is tight.

For troops patrolling insurgent strongholds and sailors working long shifts on ships in the middle of an ocean, the thought of eating home-cooked food is sometimes they only thing they have to look forward to. Sitting down to eat a delicious meal is a luxury that doesn’t come often for forward-deployed troops, but when it does, the experience can almost instantly boost morale.

Culinary Specialist 1st Class Helen Speight of Hawthorne, Calif., shows Seaman Recruit Anthony Hicks how to make muffins in the joint baking lab at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence in Fort Lee, Virginia. | Photo credit Navy photo

“You can brighten up someone’s day,” said Speight. “If they’re having a really bad day and they get that chili-mac and it tastes really good. … It’s the little things that can brighten up their day. Just some ice cream, or something like that, makes everything better.”

Johnson reminds us that the goal of the Basic Food Training Division is not to churn out award-winning chefs, but to graduate men and women equipped with the skills needed to keep a fighting force battle-ready.

“We’re taking a civilian and we’re molding them,” she said. “They’ve been through boot camp and they’ve learned how to be foot soldiers, but when they come to [JCCoE], we are their first exposure to their actual job.

“[It’s] our responsibility to teach them the basics so they can go to their duty station or their unit and be successful and become better at their craft.”

– Chad Stewart is the senior editor of On Patrol.