June 3, 2009
Neal Wagner -
The sweet smell of pastries and soothing aroma of tomato soup filled the air last week at the Mississippi University for Women''s Shattuck Hall as camouflage-clad members of the Mississippi National Guard scrambled to hone their culinary skills.
"You just have to grab it from the back of the bag and guide it where you want it to go," said Sgt. 1st Class Doug Nielsen, of Smithville, as he taught two members of the Mississippi National Guard''s Connelly Awards Program cooking team to create frosting ribbons on a large tray of brownies.
"And you definitely have to have a steady hand to do it right," chef Erich Ogle, of MUW''s Culinary Arts Institute, quickly added. "When I first started learning to write on cakes, I would to go Wal-Mart and buy the cheap, pre-made icing and write on whatever I could find."
The state National Guard''s Connelly cooking team traveled to the Friendly City May 26-30 to train at MUW''s Culinary Arts Institute shortly after being named the best military cooking team in the state. The team is composed of nearly 30 members of the 185th Combat Aviation Brigade and the 114th Aviation Company.
As part of the Connelly Awards Program, military teams from across the country engage in state, regional and national culinary battles in an attempt to be named the top cooking team in the military.
During the competitions, teams are judged on several categories, such as food presentation and cooking site preparation, as they scramble to prepare enough food to feed 100 people.
Each year, the Connelly Awards Program selects an extensive menu for each competition and requires every team to cook items from the pre-approved menu, said Nielsen.
"This year, we have baked chicken, salads, soups, cakes, salad and peas and a whole bunch of other stuff," said Nielsen. "And everything we cook is prepared from scratch."
As Army combat uniform-clad team members worked to perfect their baking, grilling, seasoning and presentation skills, they filled the Culinary Arts Institute with a mixture of mouth-watering aromas and high energy.
"This is my first year on this team," said Spc. Benjamin Hart Sr., of Jackson. "It has been a really awesome experience to be a part of this team because there are so many great cooks here.
''Cooking is second nature''
"To me, cooking is just second nature, so it feels really good to be here in this really nice kitchen honing my skills," Hart said as he sampled a spoon of his freshly prepared, vegetable and noodle-laden pasta. "Coming here to a place like this really helps us to improve the quality and look of our food before we head off to the regional competition next week."
After training for several days with MUW chefs Ogle and Joshua Oubre, the National Guard team returned to Jackson for a few more days of training before the group traveled to Grenada to compete in the June 4 regional competition, where they will compete from teams from Alabama, Florida, Georgia and a few other Southeastern states.
If the Mississippi team is victorious at the regional competition, they will travel to California next year to compete in the national Connelly Awards Program competition.
"I feel very confident about our chances at regionals," said Nielsen. "This year, we have some of the best cooks I''ve ever been around.
Building confidence in the kitchen
"The more we practice our cooking, the more confident I get," Nielsen added as his teammates ran by carrying pans of everything from green beans to dessert pastries. "I definitely think we have an excellent chance to go to California."
Because the Connelly competition requires teams to prepare a meal for 100 people, much as they would for a group of soldiers at a military base or on a battlefield, the team must work to ensure they prepare the food consistently and quickly, according to Staff Sgt. Kimberly Pannell, a Tupelo native and the team''s head cook.
"A lot of people will hear what we do and say, ''Oh, you''re just cooking. Is that all?''" Pannell said. "But a lot of people don''t realize that at these competitions, the judges are literally watching and scoring you on everything you do.
"We have to feed 100 people in the Connelly, so the first thing we cook has to be as good as the last thing we cook that day," Pannell added. "They judge us on everything from the food, the sanitation, the cooking site and everything else."
Although the 185th Aviation Brigade cooking team has trained in kitchens across the state, many of the team''s members praised MUW''s Culinary Arts Institute above everywhere else.
Getting an edge on the competition
"I definitely think MUW is helping us to prepare and get an edge on everyone we will be facing at regionals," said Nielsen. "I would like to thank the MUW chefs and Columbus for giving us all the opportunity to come stay here and be a part of this great class."
"I''ve learned a lot here that I didn''t know before," said Pfc. Michelle Sodachanh, of Yazoo City. "It''s been nice being here the past few days."
Because the team during its Columbus visit was working to improve cooking skills already labeled the best in Mississippi, the Culinary Arts Institute provided an "ideal" location for the group''s training, said Nielsen.
"This kitchen is very well equipped, and kind of simulates what we will be dealing with when we actually get to the competition," said Nielsen. "This class is set up for us to come in and hone our skills a little bit.
"Most everyone in here already knows how to cook," Nielsen laughed. "We just want to make sure everyone is still on their toes and give everyone a chance to relearn anything they may have forgotten."
Even though the National Guard was filled with praise for MUW, holding the class at the school''s Culinary Arts Institute is mutually beneficial for both parties, said Ogle.
"This is just a great opportunity for us to help these guys brush up before they hopefully go on to win the regional competition," said Ogle. "This is the second year we have held this class for the National Guard state champion in cooking, and I believe we are slated to host them for the next seven or 10 years.
"Personally, I am honored to have them in here and to have an opportunity to help them out," Ogle added. "This is a completely unique thing for the school, and we are really excited to have the opportunity to do it."