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Soldier chefs give meals fresh twist
Program aims to reduce Armys canned food use
web soldier chefs 013
Army civilian cook Jane Mann slices up corn bread for Soul Food Thursday at a Fort Stewart dining hall. - photo by Denise Etheridge

Why not follow suit?

Fort Stewart’s partnership with the Ford Plantation was designed to promote the use of fresh food in menu items prepared on post and reduce the Army’s use of canned food. There are plenty of benefits to choosing fresh over canned:

• Canned food often has high amounts of sodium.

• Fresh food is environmentally friendly. Canned food packaging — tin, aluminum, etc. — often is not recycled.

• Buying fresh produce supports the local agricultural community and economy.

Taking the basics and making it his own is one of many culinary lessons Staff Sgt. Eric Holland learned in a partnership program between Fort Stewart and upscale Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill. Holland was one of the first soldier chefs to enter the ongoing program.

The Ford Plantation is a luxury residential and sporting community on a 1,800-acre site adjacent to the Ogeechee River.

The culinary partnership with Fort Stewart helps promote the use of fresh food in menu items prepared on post in an effort to reduce the Army’s use of canned food, Ford Plantation General Manager Bob Gusella said.

Each week, four soldier chefs work alongside Ford Plantation’s executive chef, Juan Carlos Rodriguez, and his kitchen staff, Gusella explained.

“We’ve actually had three different groups of four soldiers (so far),” he said. Gusella said the idea for the program was planted in 2009, after a group of Ford Plantation members and employees toured Fort Stewart.

“The tour included a tour of one of their dining facilities,” he said.

Gusella said Fort Stewart leaders had commented that they would like to upgrade the installation’s food service, and after further discussion and continued support from former 3rd Infantry Division commanders, Gens. Thomas Vandal, Tony Cucolo and Jeffery Phillips, and current 3rd ID Commander Maj. Gen. Robert “Abe” Abrams, the program was implemented.

“It really came to fruition after the first of this year,” Gusella said.

Holland spent 10 weeks, from Feb. 16-April 18, sometimes working 11-hour days, preparing lunches and dinners at the plantation clubhouse as well as special events, such as oyster roasts.

“Each day was different,” Holland said. “It didn’t even seem like a job really.”

Holland said at Ford Plantation, the emphasis is on individual dining. He would help serve lunch to an average of 30 people each day and dinner to an average of 40 people each night at the clubhouse.

“We do very fine dining, like high-end wine dinners, and then we can totally switch gears and offer a Lowcountry boil with a pulled pork roast,” Gusella said.

In contrast, the Army’s focus is on standard menus for large numbers of troops, Holland said. At Spartan Dining Facility 2, Holland and the crew he supervises serves 500-600 soldiers per meal each day.

Gusella said most of the soldiers in the program have had some kitchen familiarity, although they may not have had formal training.

Holland worked at Cracker Barrel for four years in Savannah before joining the Army about 10 years ago.

“I started as a dishwasher and worked my way up to grill cook,” he said.

The young soldier added that his mother is from Toulon, France, and therefore he grew up with a love of good food. His mother made ratatouille, crepe suzette and Coq au vin. Holland said he also tried Korean food when deployed there last year and hopes to try his hand at cooking Korean cuisine.

The staff sergeant said he honed his cooking skills at Ford Plantation. Specifically, he learned about plating and how to cut vegetables faster and more efficiently, as well as using more fresh ingredients in cooking, Holland said. He said he now can share what he has learned with other soldiers.

Holland said the program has inspired him to plan a “tasting bar” to introduce soldiers to some new recipes. Troops who try the new menu items will submit comment cards so Holland and dining facility administrators can receive input on what dishes soldiers like best. He hopes to implement the tasting bar shortly.

Holland said Ford Plantation employees and members also seem to have benefited from the partnership.

“They’re teaching us what they know, too,” Gusella said. “It’s an information exchange that is mutually respectful.”

Ford Plantation members “have embraced the program,” according to Gusella. He said members often will come by the clubhouse to check on the soldier chefs, to see how their training is going and to thank them for their military service.

Gusella said troops also help harvest fresh eggs and vegetables from the Ford Plantation’s barn and garden.

“We’ve tried to integrate the soldiers when they’re here as part of our family,” he said. “They take pride in their work and enjoy being part of a team.”

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