Celebrity chefs, Army style

Story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers magazine

Army chefs Sgt. 1st Class Guy Winks and Staff Sgt. Edmund Perez say there's nothing more satisfying than seeing empty plates after serving Soldiers. (DOD photo by Jacqueline M. Hames)

Sergeant 1st Class Guy Winks and Staff Sgt. Edmund Perez are typical Soldiers: They’re combat veterans and noncommissioned officers, but they’re also award-winning cooks. In fact, thanks to the Pentagon Channel’s popular series “Grill Sergeants,” they’re perhaps the Army’s most famous chefs.

It wasn’t always that way, though. While Perez actually attended culinary school before joining the Army and wanted to be a cook from the beginning, Winks signed up as a physical therapist. He broke a hand while playing football two days before he was supposed to leave for basic training, however, and the recruiter gave him a choice: cook or mechanic.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know a bumper gasket from a gutenator valve,’ but I had worked in restaurants as a teenager, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll be a cook,’” he remembered. “And of course the recruiter’s like ‘When you get to your first unit, just tell them you want to be a physical therapist. They’ll send you to the school later.’ So I get to artillery at Fort Carson and I’m like, ‘They told me I could be a physical therapist.’ They’re like, ‘Get back on the grill.’”

But as soon as he, like Perez, saw how important feeding the troops was, he quickly changed his mind. Although both are now enlisted aides to generals, they loved cooking dinner at the dining facility and feeding the young privates who had no choice but to eat there.

“It’s addicting,” said Perez. “I like feeding people. I like entertaining. I think I like the reaction. They were appreciative of it too.”

“They were if you did good,” interrupted Winks. “Because a lot of dining facilities would just do leftovers because they’re like, ‘We don’t care. We’re only feeding a couple hundred people for dinner, so it’s not a big deal.’ I used to throw parties. I used to rent movies … and we’d be playing inappropriate stuff in there all the time. We’d have ‘Kill Bill.’ We’d be playing that and I’d be making up pizzas and hot dogs, chili dogs and stuff.”

“That’s the first thing they would ask when they came in: ‘Who made this?’ or ‘Who’s the shift leader?’” Perez continued. “And they knew that if I was the shift leader, they knew that I oversaw it all so it’s not going to be leftovers from lunch or something. If you’re going to do it, do it right.”

There’s nothing more satisfying, both men agreed, than seeing piles of empty plates coming back to the kitchen after chow time. Winks even inspired the cooks working under him to make better food by holding competitions between the “main line” (meat and potatoes) and the faster short-order line to see who drew the largest number of diners on a particular day. “So they’re doing their best to just make the most kick-ass food they can to try to get the biggest head count,” he said. It was fun and ensured Soldiers had great food, and Winks said that Army chow in general keeps “getting even better and better,” especially with a renewed focus on nutrition.

While both chefs have deployed multiple times, they were far less likely to cook than to run convoys and patrols while downrange; most dining facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, they explained, were run by civilian contractors. Perez did end up running a DFAC in Iraq, but only because he fought his unit sergeant major, who had planned to permanently assign the cooks to personal security details, and negotiated with the food service warrant officer, saying “They’ve got dining facilities here. I’m a cook. That’s what I’m going to do.” He brought the DFAC — known as the Convoy Café for its proximity to the convoy lanes at Balad — under Army control, cleaned it up and introduced sub sandwich and pasta and ice cream bars. Before he knew it, the DFAC was named the best in Iraq for eight months in a row, and quickly became the chow hall of choice for visiting dignitaries. “That’s when they were like, ‘OK, yeah, I’m glad we put you over there,’ buying us chef coats and all this equipment.”

Both men prefer to cook simple, flavorful dishes. Perez’s favorite recipe is braised short ribs while Winks loves to make fish, pork tacos and homemade pizza, although, like many chefs, they usually forgo recipes and create dishes using food that’s on hand and ingredients that look good.

“I do fancy stuff a lot,” Winks said, “but you know what? I like to take common ingredients when I do fancy stuff. I think a lot of people want to throw goose liver and truffles in, all these fancy ingredients, and they forget if you just make chicken right, it’s wonderful. … What makes a five-star meal is that it’s done right and it’s the right size and the right amount of food and cooked the right way, with the right textures and colors and flavors.

“I use some principles. I look at everything like a color wheel. If I’ve got something sweet, I try to make sure there’s some spice in there or sour or something opposite. If I’ve got something crunchy, I make sure there’s something creamy. If I’ve got something bright, vibrant, pastel-colored, I try to make sure there’s earthy colors. My colors, my tastes, my textures – I just try to make sure I’m kind of all over the place with them and it always seems to work.”

The two Army chefs share their tips and tricks for healthy cooking on the Pentagon Channel’s “Grill Sergeants.” It’s a lot of fun, they say, but both men agreed that their proudest moment was making the U.S. Culinary Olympic Team as part of the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team, a long-time dream for both men, although Winks had to drop out of this year’s competition due to daily mission requirements.

“When you think about it, it’s just like ‘Wow,’” he explained. “You’re competing against other top chefs from around the world. The whole world.”

In addition to hosting North America’s largest culinary competition at Fort Lee, Va., every year for military chefs from all over the world, the USACAT competes in the World Culinary Olympics in Germany every four years and the Culinary World Cup in Luxemburg every four years, training and planning in the two years between each.

Culinary competitions have two parts, Winks explained: cold food and hot food. Cold food is food that is typically served hot, but is sitting on a display table at room temperature. Teams make several meals for the display table, and then the judges pick one of the entries for the team to make for about 150 people in the hot event.

“They pick one of the meals from our display table and we hit a live kitchen and we make it for 150 people,” he said. “That keeps you honest on the table. You can’t put something on there that you can’t actually make. And believe me, if you put some crazy stuff on there, that’s what they’re going to pick, so you’ve got to put something on there that you’re ready to execute for 150 people in four hours.”

After two years of planning what they will cook, joint service USACAT members arrive in country about six weeks before the weeklong competitions and cook 18 hours a day, six days a week. By the date of the competition, Winks said, “you’ve done it so many times that you could do it with your eyes closed. You could be hung over. You could have pneumonia.” Anything that can have gone wrong, will have gone wrong and will have been not only fixed, but perfected.

USACAT actually won the World Culinary Olympics in 2000, and received two gold medals and silver overall in 2008. The team also earned a gold medal and placed sixth in the world at the Culinary World Cup in 2010. Winks and Perez attribute the team’s success to the military’s emphasis on training, discipline and leadership.

“Training is training,” Perez said. “And when the boss says, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ this is what we’re doing. You can’t say, ‘Well, I’m a better chef than you so no, that’s not what we’re doing.’ No. This is what we’re doing.”

“And we’re going to do it again and again and again and again until we’re good at it,” Winks added. “Because that’s military training. That’s what keeps you alive in combat. It’s muscle memory to pull that guy out of the driver’s seat or to push this guy down or to slap, pull, observe, release, tap and shoot and fix a jammed weapon. It’s muscle memory. So that’s what we do.”

Editor’s Note: Watch Winks and Perez on a Pentagon Channel special called “Grill it Safe,” a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on food safety and summertime cooking: http://www.pentagonchannel.mil/thegrillsergeants/index.shtml. You can also pick up some summer recipes at http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2012/06/army-chef-gets-things-cooking-with-summer-recipes/.

  • Jim Bolton, SSG USA – Retired

    When on active duty (and after my retirement due to MS), I worked in Public Affairs at Fort Lee for 10 years – where Army cooks/chefs trained. I got to know some great people and Philip A. Connelly award winners.

  • Chuck Steele

    I remember one mess sergeant in particular. His name was SFC Dave Dickinson. I was fortunate enough to be stationed in the same unit with him twice. Best breakfast ever! At my last duty station, he was over the open mess at the Ft. Lewis Main NCO Club. Thursday night, London Broil!!