By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN Preparing three meals a day for 300 soldiers at Fort Drum Army Base in New York is all in a day’s work for military cook Pfc. Sam Daigle, a Holy Trinity 2006 graduate.
But Daigle had the opportunity to really showcase his cooking talents when he took part in the largest culinary arts competition of its kind in the US, at Kitchen Stadium at the Fort Lee, VA, Field House, March 4 through the 12.
For his efforts, Daigle, son of Joan and Gary Daigle of Winsted, won a silver medal in the Jr. Chef of the Year competition, just one of more than 500 judged events at the military’s 35th Culinary Arts competition.
“I wanted the gold so badly, but this was my first rodeo, so I think I did alright,” Daigle said. “I cooked off with 12 other soldiers 23 years of age and under, military-wide, and got silver. That was awesome.”
As part of the competition, two teams squared off daily in field kitchens. They were responsible for preparing 75 meals, which were available to the general public on a first come-basis at $4.25 each, a fraction of what diners would pay at a regular five-star restaurant.
“The days were very long, and we would work late and be in early, but it’s what we love doing playing with food to create amazing dishes,” Daigle said.
“The whole time I spent on the team, I was a sponge for knowledge. I had to learn. My passion for food drove me to study cookbooks . . . no joke,” Daigle said.
Trophies and special awards were given in the following categories: Best team exhibit, best exhibit, special judges’ award, most artistic piece, best overall table exhibit in the competition, best entry, contemporary, nutritional hot food challenge team of the year, best centerpiece in ice, field cooking team competition, culinary knowledge bowl champions, chef of the year, national culinary champion of the US military, national pastry champion of the US military, and installation of the year.
Judges and instructors from England, Sweden, and other countries were brought in to provide valuable feedback to the participants. Many of the judges belong to the American Culinary Federation and World Association of Chefs’ societies.
The competition is open to active duty members of all services, and this year’s event was special because all of the military services, including the Coast Guard, took part.
The culinary arts competition has taken place every year since 1973, with the exception of 1991, during Desert Storm; and 2003, during the Iraq war kickoff, according to information from the US Quartermaster School, Fort Lee.
After practicing for the competition for about two months at headquarters, 277th Aviation Support Battalion, 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, NY, where Daigle is currently assigned, a team of 12, Daigle included, left for Fort Lee with two vans and a U-haul for all the equipment.
They stayed in a hotel about a half-mile from Fort Lee.
To decide who would cook for each competition, there was a cook-off to decide which person made the best dish and had the best skills, deserving a spot on the team. Not everyone was able to do every event.
“Competition cooking is displaying as many techniques as you can in just a few dishes,” Daigle said. “These dishes are very refined and played with so that the flavors all play well together and it looks very appealing.”
Competition cooking is very different from the daily meals Daigle cooks at the dining facility at Fort Drum. There, he describes the cooking as “basic, fast, and lots of it.”
“I’m talking about up to 300 portions of teriyaki chicken or rice and beans. We follow the recipe cards to a “T” and that’s that. There is not a whole lot of altering.”
When Daigle cooks at home, his preference is making pasta with a sauce that he lets cook all day. He likes to add fresh ingredients and chooses foods that are in season.
“I learned so much these last few months that I am applying techniques to recipes that I like already and seeing if I can bring a new element to the dish,” Daigle said.
He recently bought a hand-held smoking gun which burns wood chips, and has found it adds a light smoky smell and flavor to a dish without grilling it for eight hours.
“The other night, just for kicks, I made smoked braised bison with balsamic reduction and blue cheese for a little appetizer and gave it to my friends to try. It was great,” Daigle said.
Daigle joined the Army in January 2009, for a three-year enlistment. He is currently planning for deployment in October.
Future plans for Daigle will be to attend culinary arts school when he leaves the Army.
In June, he will be home for 15 days.
“I will be at Winstock,” Daigle said. “I can’t wait.”