JBLM soldier brings the heat during culinary arts team tryouts

By Sgt. James Bunn on December 8, 2014

The palpable scent of spices and steak filled the air as Sgt. Andrew Shurden, displayed his cooking skills at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Culinary Arts Team tryouts in November 2014.

If selected, Shurden, a food services specialist with the 42nd Military Police Brigade, and 15 other food services soldiers will compete in the Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event at Fort Lee, Va. in March.

The JBLM team will consist of eight team members, four student team members and four alternates. At the competition, the team will compete in eight events including the Armed Forces Chef of the Year, Armed Forces Student Chef of the Year, nutrition cook off, culinary exam, military kitchen competition, team buffet, student competitive training event and dessert competition.

Shurden competed twice at the MCACTE with a team from Hawaii and said he hopes his skills and experience will earn him a spot on the JBLM team.

"I liked being on the team in Hawaii," said Shurden. "I was able to learn more about being a chef and develop my skills beyond the dining facility."

Shurden will need more than sharp knife skills and tasty food to earn a spot on the team. The judges will score competitors using the same criteria as the American Culinary Federation and are looking for chefs that can work well in a team, exhibit good work habits, and strong cooking and organizational skills.

"First and foremost we're looking at how well these chefs work in the kitchen," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jesse Ward, one of the judges at the tryouts. "Second is skills used during the food preparation. We want to know that the flavors are good and the temperatures are correct."

>>> Sgt. Andrew Shurden slices beef tenderloin during tryouts for the Joint Base Lewis-McChord culinary arts team. Photo credit: Sgt. James J. Bunn

At the beginning of the tryouts team hopefuls had an opportunity to plan their menu for the cook off. The next two days competitors refined their menu selections and practiced cooking techniques.

Shurden has his sights set on competing in the Armed Forces Chef of the Year portion of the MCACTE. In this, category competitors have an hour and 15 minutes to cook and plate a meal using a mystery ingredient.

For the tryouts the mystery ingredient was beef tenderloin. Shurden quickly trimmed the beef, sliced it into steaks and prepared it for the grill, posing little challenge for the chef. His finished plate was a filet mignon on top of a blueberry red wine reduction topped with fried leeks, asparagus and layered potatoes.

"Before I joined the Army I was a chef at a barbeque restaurant," said Shurden, a Tupelo, Mississippi native. "Meat preparation is probably my strongest skill in the kitchen."

Working in a restaurant Shurden trained to become a professional chef and achieve one of his lifelong goals, but being a chef wasn't his only dream. The chef wanted to be a soldier as well.  

"I joined the Army as a cook so I could serve my country and continue my career as a chef," said Shurden. "Being able to serve those who are serving is rewarding to me."

Shurden's love of cooking started long before working in a restaurant or a military dining facility, and he attributes it to his upbringing. My family is a major driving force when I step into the kitchen, added Shurden.

"I'm from Mississippi and food is a big part of life back home and it has always been important in my family," said Shurden. "I grew up watching my dad in the kitchen."

Shurden said he wants to compete at the MCACTE not just for fun but also for the opportunities that come from participating in the largest culinary arts competition in the United States.

Soldiers who do well at the Fort Lee competition often get recruited to work at the Pentagon's dining facility, said Shurden. It's a chance to broaden my skills in the kitchen and advance my career, he added.

Working as a chef in a place like the Pentagon requires a skilled professional. The tryouts not only helped decide the team, they also provided an opportunity for the chefs to raise their culinary excellence and professionalism and serves as a training event for all the competitors.

Shurden used his experience to answer questions from younger soldiers about the meal he was preparing and the techniques he was using. 

"I am more than happy to teach anyone about cooking," said Shurden. "Sharing what I know with others is as rewarding to me as knowing that someone enjoyed the food I prepared."

At the end of the cook-off the judges talked to all of the chefs about their food and offered critiques and constructive feedback.

"I want these guys to be able to take what they learn here and apply those skills in their unit's DFAC," said Ward. "This is a good way to build motivation in the soldiers competing and also improve the quality of food in their units.

Shurden is one of the top candidates for the team but he and the other competitors won't officially find out until February if they were selected for the JBLM team.