Army Chefs Put the “Brrr” in Berwyn International Food Festival

BERWYN, Ill. — When most people think of food service in the Army, they usually picture Private Snuffy pulling KP; peeling hundreds of potatoes because he was late for formation. Granted this may be the case in basic training, but not at the Berwyn International Food Festival in Berwyn, Ill.

“I’ve got the coolest job in the Army,” Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert Sparks, chief of Craft Skills Culinary Branch of the Army Center of Excellence and Subsistence, at Fort Lee, told an audience of fascinated and amazed onlookers at the May event. Sparks has carved more than 500 ice sculptures in his 25-year career, and at the Berwyn Food Festival, he and another Soldier showcased their unique talent.

Berwyn Alderman Jim Ramos invited the U.S. Army to participate in the festival. After requesting Army support, he was surprised to find out that the Army has chefs with the caliber of skills that qualify them to compete on a U.S. Olympic Culinary Arts team.

“Everyone was impressed with their skills,” said Ramos. He added that several attendees came to the display after the festival was over and took pictures. “I appreciate the time the chefs took to come out. I hope they’ll come back again next year,” he said.

Food service specialists in the Army can be found anywhere from food festivals to garrison dining facilities to kitchens on the battlefield or even in the kitchen of the Superintendent of West Point. As the senior enlisted aide to the U.S. Military Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Buster Hagenback, Sgt. 1st Class Andre Rush is a skillful ice carver who joined Sparks at the festival.

Rush, a chef who specializes in chocolate sculptures, pastry and larder (entrees), said that he developed his skills through culinary competitions and holiday functions at the Army bases he’s been assigned to.

Rush, the self-taught sculptor, said that the biggest ice sculpture he has ever carved was of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. It was 1,600 pounds, 15 feet tall and about eight feet in length.

With the support of his commander, Rush goes wherever the Army needs him to demonstrate his ice carving skills and uses the opportunities to build his craft. During his 13-year military career, Rush has made hundreds of carvings. At the Berwyn festival, he and Sparks added three more sculptures to their repertoire: an abstract seahorse, a sphinx and a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Many of the food festival’s attendees were surprised to see the Soldiers carving ice and sculpting fruit, especially since one is also a drill sergeant. Sgt. 1st Class K. Michael Snapp, Fort Lee, demonstrated fruit carving at the Berwyn festival, and as a drill sergeant, is very familiar with the training provided to Army food service specialists.

According to Snapp, food service training includes two main areas: garrison and field operations, with each session lasting three weeks.

The garrison operations session teaches Soldiers baking, cooking and culinary skills, while the field session teaches the Soldiers how to do those same skills in the field while using a containerized kitchen mobile trailer. Snapp said that during their training, Soldiers learn how to feed up to 800 hundred people three times a day. Sparks added that during his career, he has noticed that many new recruits have graduated from culinary schools and join the Army with a degree, so many of them already have the basic skills needed to be an Army food service specialist.

Army food service specialists have opportunities to learn from other military chefs and show off the culinary skills they learned through Army and civilian training.

And there is nothing like hands-on experience to enhance that training. To achieve this, each year they can compete at the annual U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition at Fort Lee. The top 15 Soldiers won their chance to go to the World Competition and the World Culinary Olympics, as members of the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team. According to Sparks, who is the team manager for the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team and the project officer for the Competition, military teams from 12 nations will compete at the world event and 36 countries will participate in the World Culinary Olympics.

Many of the Army chefs who compete in the Annual Culinary Competition learned ice carving and other advanced culinary skills during a four-week advanced course at Fort Lee. The chefs are taught ice carving techniques for two hours, and then working together, they carve a wine rack, said Sparks. At the end of the course, two Soldiers work on two additional carvings under the direction of their instructor. The sculptures are then displayed during the last course of their final project.

The ice carving skills learned through the advanced class were used by Sparks and Rush during the festival. The Soldiers assembled multiple blocks of ice to create a 1,500-pound sculpture. Rush, using a special marker, drew the figure’s outline on the blocks, and then etched the shape using a die grinder. Then, working side-by-side, Sparks and Rush used chainsaws, ice picks, grinders, and various ice carving cutting bits to create beautiful works of art.

So, the next time you think of an Army chef, don’t picture Private Snuffy peeling potatoes. Picture him sculpting a masterpiece from a 1,500-pound block of ice.