GOSHEN, N.Y. - Hudson Valley high school student chefs met New York Army National Guard culinary challenges Dec. 2 and 4, cooking MREs into dishes that sated and delighted troops' taste buds.
"I was surprised to see what the kids did with the MREs," said Sgt. Duwann Gordon, one of the culinary specialists who judged contests held at Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES)—vocational education facilities in Dutchess and Orange Counties.
"They were all good,"he said.
But taste wasn't the only winner, according to Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Lattimer and Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Thompson, the New York Army National Guard recruiters who organized the events in conjunction with BOCES staff and teachers. The contests were a way of exposing students to Army career fields - like culinary specialist - and garnering potential recruits, they said.
"You're able to capture an audience you wouldn't be able to otherwise," Thompson said.
The events were inspired by presentations New York Army National Guard military police and recruiters have been giving to BOCES law-enforcement students for the last decade, Thompson and Lattimer said.
Events like this give students a chance to interact with Army subject-matter experts such as Gordon and Pvt. Yorby Fernandez, the other culinary specialist who judged the students' dishes, they explained.
Lattimer estimated that about 200 BOCES culinary students participated in the events, which included classes on the Army's Mobile Kitchen Trailer (MKT). Gordon, of the 719th Transportation Company, and Fernandez, of the 145th Maintenance Company, towed an MKT to each event and fielded questions about it and their career field.
Then it was time for the students to confront the challenge.
In their white chef coats and hats, the students crowded into the BOCES kitchen and listened as Lattimer showed them the MREs and laid out contest rules.
Each four-student team -- using spices, other ingredients and their own skills -- had about an hour to transform a randomly-chosen MRE into a meal, complete with a drink and a dessert. The meals would be judged on taste, creativity and presentation.
Lattimer started his timer and the teams scattered, opened the MREs and dumped their contents onto their workstations. Some students stared wide-eyed as they examined the grey and brown MRE packets of cheese, crackers, potatoes, beef, cocoa powder and other foods.
But these expressions quickly disappeared as the students' imaginations kicked into high gear. Excitedly sharing ideas with each other, the teams began seeing the dull-colored packets as ingredients - the raw material for dishes they envisioned.
"They were so hyped-up to do this," said Fernandez, who hails from Brooklyn, New York.
The students were very engaged, noted Gordon, a Brentwood, New York, resident.
"When you give them the challenge, they really open up," he said.
That creative excitement exploded into activity as the students proceeded to chop, whip, churn, stir, mix, fry, melt, bake and decorate the ingredients into array of entrees, side dishes and desserts. When the hour was up, each team had put the final elegant touches, like tiny swirls of whipped cream, on their visually appetizing dishes.
Gordon and Fernandez spoke to the students as they inspected and tasted the dishes. The students' creativity was such that the judges couldn't tell what type of MRE each team had been given to work with.<br>
One group had taken an MRE fruit-punch drink mix, whipped it into a creamy constituency and topped it off with whipped cream and a cherry, Fernandez explained.
"They turned it into ice cream, basically," he said, recalling all the times he'd eaten plain, un-enhanced MREs. "I wish I had these dishes in basic (training). "They did an amazing job."
While the judges found it difficult to pick their personal favorite from among the students' dishes, Gordon praised a Shepherd's pie students prepared from MRE potatoes and roast beef.
"That was really good," he said. "Every team had a part of their meal that was really good."
The students made good use of the MRE components and didn't discard much, Gordon said. During the taste-testing, he considered finishing off one student meal, he added.
"I didn't want to eat the whole meal in front of them," Gordon joked. "That would've looked bad."
But Gordon was also pleased with the students' teamwork.
"I wanted to see everyone come together and work as a team," he said. "When you come together as a team, that's when you make real magic happen."
Cooperation among the students "was 120 percent," Gordon said.
"It's a great team-building and problem-solving exercise," said Scott Zintel, a chef and BOCES culinary instructor.
In addition to honing the students' communication and time-management skills, the contests showed them what it's like to work under pressure, said Zintel and his fellow culinary arts instructor Chef Robert T. Heppes.
The events and contests allowed the students to mix with students from other classes, and taught them how to accept setbacks, said chef and BOCES culinary instructor Tom Genovese. He enjoyed seeing the students' excitement, and seeing individual students assume leadership roles on their teams, he added.
"Teenagers can do amazing things when given a chance," Genovese said.
Thompson said about five students expressed interest in joining the New York Army National Guard.
Gordon summed up the events' success – and the students' success in cooking MREs - in another way.
"It was worth skipping breakfast for," he said.