Cadet Chef in training!
About a year ago, I was mucking around in a castle with a bunch of Royal Marine Commandos cooking over open flames and fire pits. I enjoyed myself so much that my agent booked me to be a guest judge at this year’s British Army Sustainer, which is an annual competition for Army chefs. Alongside my pal Tony Singh, I was an invited guest to the event which was hosted at the 167th Catering Support training facility in Lincolnshire. The 167 are responsible for training and equipping both regular and reserve soldiers as chefs and form part of the wider Royal Logistics Corps. The motto of the RLC is “We Sustain” which sums up their core mission and explains the name of this annual competition.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but when I reported for duty at 0730 hours in a bright, sunny but windy field I could tell this was a really big event. My agent had advised me to wear flat shoes as we would be cooking outdoors, but she had undersold it somewhat. This was the British Army after all, so there was a veritable small town of tents and marquees set up, with dozens of field kitchens, all under cover, with full carpeting underfoot and commercial grade stainless steel prep areas.
I met up with Tony Singh shortly after I arrived. Tony is the irrepressible Edinburgh chef you may know from TV shows such as the Incredible Spicemen and A Cook Abroad. He is always pretty distinctive and didn’t disappoint on this occasion with his bright red turban, paisley shirt and Harris tweed kilt. After a sausage sarnie breakfast we were shown round the event by our host for the day Warrant Officer Silverwood and briefed on the plan for the day, which was far more extensive than I had realised. There were competitions running throughout the day in the show kitchen, open to chefs from both regular forces and from the Reserves (formerly called the Territorial Army). These included competitions for the best dishes made with, for example, lamb or pasta and culminated with a grand prix where teams of 2 chefs were preparing a 3 course menu which Tony and I would be helping to judge.
Being surrounded by so many soldiers the conversation soon turned to the equipment and its relative merits. I have to say that most of the field kitchens were incredible bits of kit. The stoves were powered by what looked like jet engines, and funnily enough could be powered by aviation fuel, which burns cleaner and hotter than diesel. Each tent had two or three stove and oven fittings, plenty of clean workspace and full extraction facilities piped out through pre-made chimneys in the tent ceilings.
But the real eye-opener for me was the Improvised Field Catering Challenge which was set up in a far corner of the event field. This challenge was for teams of three chefs to cook a two-course meal for twenty using only ingredients from operational ration packs they wouldn’t see until 15 minutes before the challenge started. And first they had to build their kitchens. All within 3 and a half hours. Every team had a range from materials which included empty metal drums, metal grids and bricks. Several of the teams were clearly planning to dig holes to make turf lined ovens with metal oil drums and there was lots of surreptitious watering of the ground to make the digging easier when the whistle finally went.
Unfortunately I wasn’t there for the judging of this challenge but the menus and photos of the food produced out in these improvised kitchens were incredible. One of the 3 teams from 167 produced a chicken and rabbit fricassée with Mediterranean vegetables and sauté potatoes. Dessert was a choice of sablé biscuits with a lemon syllabub served with raspberry coulis or a pear tart with custard. All produced in a field out of a metal drum in a pit over burning wood.
Tony and I also had to compete, in a cook-off alongside Captain Collins-Lindsey, who is the Director of the Combined Services Culinary Arts Team, has over 25-years catering and competition experience, so I knew this was going to be a tough challenge. We would be cooking on a Type 5 field kitchen (no jet engine!) which consisted of 2 gas burners and a metal box on top which was an oven; the two heat settings available were ‘Really Hot’ or ‘Off’. We were given a mystery box of ingredients and a larder our challenge was to produce 2 courses in one hour whilst being watched by a large audience.
Having seen the standard of food being produced in the other competitions, I was genuinely worried, and I was right to be. Although my menu of mixed vegetable pakoras followed by Bengali beef Bhuna with tarka dhal and pilau rice was definitely popular with the soldiers, and the Commanding Officer said her favourite were the pakoras, the final decision went to Captain Collins-Lindsey with his Moroccan-spiced cod loin with apricot couscous and chocolate soufflé with berry sauce. He deserved to win just for the soufflé in my opinion although Tony also really pushed the boat out with a 3 course meal in the hour, his salmon ceviche starter being the stand-out dish for me.
The prize giving followed the end of all the competitions and it was wonderful to see everyone’s hard work being rewarded. There was a good mix of winners from both Regulars and Reserves and it was great to see the enthusiasm with which they were cheered by the crowd and their peers. This was clearly a competition that was taken seriously and the winners would be going on to represent the Army in the Combined Services competitions later in the year and potentially even their country in international competitions further down the line. There was no doubt that this meant a lot.
What also stood out for me was the was the quality of the food produced in the competitions. This wasn’t just hearty grub; it was refined, interesting and very tasty. It’s good to know the Army are being well fed wherever they are in the world, and I am really grateful to 167 for their hospitality and for giving us the opportunity to be part of their event. Next year we want to go up against the Army in the field kitchen challenge – digging practice starts now…!