Army chefs take the cake during birthday prep

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers magazine

“Is that too orangey?” Spc. Robert Capazzi wondered, examining a ball of fondant the size of a grapefruit. “Oh, actually — that’s too orangey, I need to make it darker.”

“Maybe add more,” Spc. Javier Muniz said, pointing to a copper shade of food coloring. Capazzi took another drop of the food coloring and kneaded it in to the ball. “There you go.”

The ball of fondant had started off about the size of a fist, but to achieve the correct gold color, Capazzi had to add more white fondant to the balance, and then, more food coloring. After that, a little more pre-made fondant, until the ball grew to almost three times the original size. After kneading the giant mixture for a minute or two, he stopped to compare the color to the template — it didn’t match. In went more food coloring.

“I’ve been doing this for like half an hour now,” Capazzi said while shaking out his tired arms. Fellow pastry chef Pfc. Samantha Poe peeked over his shoulder, watching him fold the fondant on the stainless steel counter.

“Come on, get strong,” she joked.

Capazzi, Poe and Muniz, all members of the Army’s Culinary Arts Team, were hard at work assembling the fondant decorations for the Army’s birthday cake.

They borrowed a small kitchen from the Army’s Executive Dining Facility in the Pentagon to prepare the decorations: Capazzi and Muniz worked at a station near industrial cooktops and ovens, while Poe stood at another prep-counter around the corner. Refrigerators hummed in the background.

The cake will be presented during an official cake-cutting ceremony at the Pentagon in celebration of the Army’s 237th birthday. It will be five feet long by three feet wide, Poe explained, and is expected to serve about 600 people.

The chefs take pride in their work, and it shows in the sharp lines of the already completed Army logo decoration.

“Food is my life!” said Capazzi, who worked as a chef in New York and Austin for six years before joining the Army. When he saw that the Army had a culinary career path, he was ecstatic.

Poe, who has seven years experience, worked as a pastry chef at several four and five star restaurants before enlisting. “Due to my experience and very good recommendations from a few key people, I was able to earn a spot up here,” Poe said, noting that her position is considered a special assignment.

“It’s very honoring and humbling to be able to have the opportunity straight out of AIT (Advanced Individual Training),” she said.

Though the design of the cake is simple this year, the task of building the cake still requires quite a bit of organization. The design first has to be approved by Army leadership, Poe said, and then the kitchen manager coordinates with rations personnel to ensure the chefs will have the necessary ingredients in the right quantities. Then the real work begins.

The cake layers used to construct the confection are baked ahead of time, so they will be cool during the assembly process, Poe explained. Baking and cooling times, combined with preparing the fondant decorations and assembling the cake, require expert time management skills.

Sergeant 1st Class JerNorris Perry, noncommissioned officer in charge at the Army Executive Dining Facility, said that cake assembly could take up to nine hours.

“It can definitely stack up,” Poe said, as she carefully sliced the center out of a fondant letter. “As you can see, (I’m spending) about 20 to 30 minutes cutting out the letters. But with them all being the same color that does help. You can roll out a fairly large piece of fondant, keep it covered so it doesn’t dry out too bad to where you can’t work with it, and just start cutting away. So that makes it a little bit easier.”

All the colors in the icing have to be precise, Capazzi explained. Unmatched fondant is bad, not only because of the pride the chefs take in their work, but also because of the sheer number of people who will see the final result.

Muniz, who owned and operated a family-run restaurant in Puerto Rico before joining the Army, admitted the task of cake assembly is stressful. “You know that there is going to be lots of eyes out there, so you want to make it look nicer, cleaner than ever before. Every year, you want to try and step it up a little more than the cake from last year — make it a little nicer. So, there’s always pressure.”

“It’s good stress,” Capazzi added. He believes the stress is good training. “We’ve always got room to learn. That’s what I like about the food industry, there’s so much to learn.” The chefs are constantly learning, he said, making dishes and critiquing them for each another. Even rank is set aside in the kitchen, each deferring to the other’s area of specialty.

“It’s good to have someone running point,” Poe said.

In addition to the Army’s sheet cake, Perry said that Georgetown Cupcakes is donating about 1,500 individual cupcakes and a tank made out of cupcakes for the celebration.

The cake cutting will be held at 11 a.m., June 14, in the Pentagon courtyard.