Chefs put taste to the test during quarterly cook off

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joe McFadden
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
As he kept adding in generous amounts of Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, mustard, red pepper, lemon juice, salt and pepper into the bowl, people in the kitchen wondered if Airman 1st Class Nicholas McCants, 1st Special Operations Force Support Squadron, really knew what he was doing.

With each calculated dash going into the pungent mix, he looked less like he was preparing a meal and more like he was conducting a science experiment.

"It's a little bit of everything to be sure," Airman McCants said while smothering the marinade over each charbroiled chicken breast. "But it's the sauce that gives it that extra kick."

After he added a hearty portion of rice pilaf and pepper-corn medley to his entrée, doubters in the kitchen were now sure of one thing: his plate, dubbed "Grandma's Secret," looked delicious.

Airman McCants and three other 1st SOFSS food service specialists vied to create the best tasting meal during the chef of the quarter competition at the Riptide dining facility at Hurlburt Field April 13. A panel of four judges sampled the dishes to crown the winner based on taste, presentation, creativity and originality.

Those familiar with the competition know the cooks must use the same meat--chicken in this case-- and a starch and vegetable staple in their entries. They also know the entries must include a special ingredient added at the last minute which can throw off any of the best plans.

And this quarter's surprise - an orange - was just as demanding as previous challenges. Most Airmen used the fruit as either a marinade to enhance taste or a garnish to draw in the judges eyes to the arrangement.

Senior Airman James Schneider, 1st SOFSS, soaked sliced chicken in an orange juice and apple cider sauce, getting the best from both fruit flavors. To complement his meal, "Yum-O! Chicken," he purchased a chunk of white sharp cheddar to make an extra cheesy white rice, pea and scallion assortment.

"I got the idea from my mom and Rachael Ray," Airman Schneider said. "I was pretty impressed with myself while making this, too."

Airman 1st Class James Bloodworth, 1st SOFSS, used the orange to create a sweet, citrus glaze showered over lean, steamed chicken. His "Glazing Glory" sat atop a mountain of a zesty rice, pepper and carrot medley adorned with orange rinds on each side.

"I cooked the gristle alongside the chicken to really bring out the taste," Airman Bloodworth said. "Though I'm not sure the rice was supposed to be that spicy."

Airman 1st Class Jeffrey Peoples, 1st SOFSS, rounded out the entries with his unique blend called "The Maple & Orange Experience." Applying skills he learned while cooking in his hometown of Chicago, he delicately arranged freshly cut green beans and garlic-sautéed potato wedges next to grilled chicken seasoned with orange vinaigrette.

"One of the most important things I learned is that you eat with your eyes first," Airman Peoples said.

After the two-hour preparation and cooking portion, the fate of each entry fell to the tastes of the judges. With orange flavor packed into every bite, the panel had to rely on each chef's distinct qualities to pick a winner.

"These chefs make at least 600 meals a day, and it all comes down to just one," said Maj. Lamont Coleman, 1st SOFSS commander and judge.

With that in mind, the judges agreed that Airman McCants' dish earned him the 'chef of the quarter' title. He will have his picture posted on a plaque in the Riptide and receive a special one-day pass.

"And he can cook for me on his day off, too," joked Col. Daniel Zook, 1st Special Operations Wing vice commander and judge.

As his fellow chefs and contest observers congratulated him, Airman McCants said he appreciated the opportunity to demonstrate his cooking skills.

"I feel rewarded to get this," he said. "But the sauce was what made the difference."