By Danielle DeSimone
When the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out, many families began searching for new hobbies and activities that they could do at home while social distancing or isolating. For some, that meant learning how to garden. For others, it was a chance to go on virtual “field trips” around the world. And for many, it meant diving into the world of baking.
Whether that meant watching their favorite baking competition TV shows or getting in the kitchen to roll some dough themselves, many families all across the globe discovered a love for baking during the pandemic, to include military families living in various locations.
Recently, military families had the chance to taste some sweet treats and meet some of their favorite Netflix celebrity chefs through a USO MVP event.
How the USO and Entertainers Have Teamed Up to Support Military Communities During COVID-19
In early 2020, as COVID-19 quickly spread, our nation’s military had to quickly pivot and adjust to new health and safety measures. Some service members and military families were stationed in foreign countries, where the risk of the pandemic and the lockdown measures enforced by their host country were even more extreme than in the U.S. This left many military communities isolated – from friends, family, home and even each other.
As our military members adapted to these new challenges the USO pivoted right along with them, ensuring the military community still had the support it needed. This included the launch of USO Military Virtual Programming (MVP) – a series of virtual, live-streamed events in which service members got to speak directly to entertainers through a computer or phone screen and discuss everything from deployments to what it’s like on a movie set.
Although the USO has been able to safely resume some in-person entertainment tours, the organization is continuing to offer virtual events given the continued challenges of the pandemic. Additionally, these USO MVP sessions are able to reach some military communities that are not close to a brick-and-mortar USO center, ensuring that even those in the most remote locations can still participate and be supported by the nonprofit.
“Great British Baking Show” and “Nailed It!” Stars Bring Military Families Together Over Baked Goods
Knowing how much the world – and, particularly, military families – have turned to baking goodies over the past year, the USO hosted a USO MVP event with Netflix celebrity chefs Jacques Torres and Prue Leith to bring the joy of baking to military communities across the world – and it was truly a family affair.
As soon as Prue Leith –a successful restauranteur, chef, businesswoman and current judge on the popular “Great British Baking Show” TV show – appeared on screen, the faces tuning in live to the virtual event lit up.
“If you take a peek behind me,” said USO Center Operations and Programs Manager Erik Oberg on camera. “We’ve got a whole auditorium today filled with military families, and they’re so excited to meet you.”
A crowd of military families – masked and sitting socially distanced – were gathered at the USO center on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Even more were tuning in live from Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Japan, South Korea, Belgium and 32 states and U.S. territories.
One by one, attendees at the viewing event in Ohio approached the camera to speak with Leith, giving them the exciting opportunity to chat one-on-one with the Netflix star.
Service members, military spouses and military children all stood up to ask questions, inquiring about everything from what Leith thought was her biggest baking failure, to where she drew inspiration for her famous, brightly colored outfits.
Perhaps most touching of all was that, as each participant approached to speak with Leith, they presented her and the camera with a baked good they had brought from home. In fact, all the military members in the room had brought home-baked goods to share with one another and to show off to Leith, connecting them as a community as they chatted with the star. Leith offered positive reviews for each cupcake or cookie that was presented to her.
It was the British baker’s first experience chatting with American service members through the USO, but it was certainly a rewarding one.
“[This is] really exciting for me because this is the first time I’ve done anything like this,” Leith said.
Military attendees also had the chance to speak with Jacques Torres, known as “Mr. Chocolate” for his passion for all things related to the favorite flavor. Torres is best known for his career as an award-winning pastry chef and as the star of the TV show “Nailed It!”
The French chef enthusiastically led a group of military families – who were tuning in live from USO Arizona on Fort Huachuca – through the process of assembling and decorating buttercream cupcakes. As USO staff and military attendees asked him questions about his baking career and his experience on “Nailed It!,” Torres gave expert tips on how to ensure fluffy frosting and decorate cupcakes.
One military spouse appeared on screen with her infant in her arms to speak with Torres, who shared that his own son was waiting eagerly in the other room for a completed cupcake. Torres also shared stories of how his mother would cook for his family and how it inspired his love for baking, which he now does regularly with his own children.
As the military families in Arizona gathered to decorate cupcakes together, this USO MVP event became much more than just a chance to chat with celebrity chefs. It was an opportunity for military families and other service members to come together and share a joyful moment in the kitchen with one another.
“This is amazing,” Torres said. “Thank you for having me and thanks for all that you guys do, for your service, for everything that you give to the country – merci beaucoup!”
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