Army Life – a great option for an aspiring chef

Learning to become a qualified chef through the Australian Defence Force certainly has its advantages. A good starting salary, an apprenticeship program where you are not reliant on tyrannical and unfair restaurant owners and the opportunity to travel and learn life skills make an apprenticeship through the ADF a very attractive idea.

Bistro interviews Corporal Jason Neumann on what it’s really like to be a chef in the Army.

Bistro: What made you decide to become a chef in the Army?

Jason Neumann: I was always interested in cooking and joining the Army; when I was young I would like to be a chef and doing an apprenticeship through the ADF seemed to make sense. I guess the initial attraction was a good pay start and a formal training program that I knew I would get with the Army. Pay starts at over $30,000 pa so that sounded fair and reasonable to me.

B: Is the induction program different for would – be chefs to regular soldiers?

JN: No, it is the same for everybody. Everyone who joins the Army goes through the same Basic Training program held down in Kapooka near Wagga Wagga, NSW. What you learn early on is that your role is soldier first, corps second. So it’s soldier first, chef second! If you make it through the grueling and intense basic training, then you will head on down to HMAS Cerberus where you will undertake your Initial Employment Training.

B: Can you tell us what Basic Training entails?

JN: Basic training lasts for three months. This is where you are taught to think, act and behave like an Australian Soldier. We learn about typical Army things such as weapon handling, shooting, First Aid, Close Order Drill and Field craft (living out in the field, in ‘warlike scenarios). Why sleep under 5 stars when you can sleep under 500,000?

It was certainly challenging mentally and physically, however I got a real sense of accomplishment and pride at the end of it.

B: Do you sign up for a certain period of time?

JN: Yes I did. At my period of enlistment, the minimum period was four years. After the four years are finished, I go onto an open- ended contract. I really like the lifestyle, pay and the benefits. I’ve been in the army for eight years now but at any time when I think I’ve had enough I can submit a discharge application and just close this chapter in my life.

B: What is your path after Basic Training?

JN: After basic training at Kapooka, we move on down to start the ADF Initial Cooks Course. This lasts for nineteen weeks and provided you can pass, you come out with a civilian recognised accreditation for free. The course is composed of all of the TAFE work practical and theory that a normal civilian chef would have to go through. Then at the end of the TAFE phase we get an introduction to bulk cooking, which is our specialty.

After completion of this course you will head down to another training establishment for the field phase consisting of two weeks. After the two weeks are over, you are then posted to a unit somewhere around Australia to begin your catering career. Common locations are Brisbane, Darwin, Townsville and Adelaide.

B: Can you describe a day in the life of an Army Chef?

JN: We are the only corps in the Army that has three missions with strict deadlines each and every day: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner no matter what happens. We are responsible for all the preparation, menu design and everything that gets the meals on the tables for soldiers. When we are out in the field this can include digging pits and maintaining security of our area.

As you progress through the ranks your responsibilities expand to include: menu planning; ordering and stock control of food; rostering staff; conducting on the job training and workplace assessment and providing technical catering advice which also includes logistic considerations.

The logistics involved in getting three quality meals to soldiers in the field can be very complex especially when taking tactical and current operations into meal consideration.

B: Can you outline typical meals that you would serve in the course of a day?

JN: A very generalised day would include:

Breakfast – eggs done various ways, bacon, sausage, spaghetti, baked beans, mushrooms, fried tomatoes, pancakes, French toast, hash browns (if we are lucky back in base), a selection of cereals, fruit + yoghurt

Lunch – rice choice, potato choice, two or three types of vegetables three to five main choices and a salad bar.

Dinner – similar to lunch except with a selection of dessert.

When making menus, we take into consideration the range of items being made. For example, we won’t make all fatty foods for the same meal such schnitzels, pizzas and the like. We provide a balanced diet. We need to keep our soldiers fit and healthy and not feeling sluggish and fatigued.

B: Can soldiers have second helpings?

JN: NO! Ha-ha, well sometimes they can, depending on the scenario. Rations are portion related meeting strict dietary requirements dieticians and nutritionists have calculated, based on the physical activity a soldier will encounter. Meals are served in TV style trays with set spaces for different servings. The menu has a lot of choice but calorie and Kilojoule count is pretty well set.

B: Can you explain more about what it’s like to be a chef in the field in a combat zone?

JN: I have served in Afghanistan over two separate periods 2010-2011 and 2012. In Afghanistan specifically supplies are delivered by air or road every week…If the delivery works out well and there aren’t any issues with the chopper or truck breaking down or being attacked, the rations are dropped off outside the patrol base. Everything is shipped in crates or pallets that have been iced for delivery. The produce comes from all over the world through supply contracts the ADF has with the private sector. Meats including beef, chicken, and pork. This can come from anywhere in the world while fruit and vegetables tend to be sourced more locally due to shelf life issues.

B: What about seafood. Do you serve fish or are the logistics too complicated?

JN: Generally speaking in the Barracks environment, we do get seafood; mainly fish unless we are doing a special function. We do not get any seafood while we are out in the field. This is because there is a higher risk of making people ill and seafood doesn’t react well with the TV dinner trays.

B: What do you prefer, cooking in the field or in Barracks?

JN: I like both. Each has its different rewards. On deployment like Afghanistan you really connect with the other soldiers. We don’t just cook meals! We are required to do ‘pickets’, guard towers and other duties just like the other guys. It is when you are on the ground with the lads that the saying ‘an Army marches on its stomach’ becomes relevant and makes sense. We are the morale for the boys. Everyone loves food. Cook it well and you will make someone’s day, cook it bad and they will never forget. You are only remembered for your last meal so you get a real sense of responsibility in this environment to perform well for each and every meal you serve. Figuratively speaking, ‘Each and every item you present on the servery has your name in front of it’ so this gives a bit of extra motivation to perform every time. We would cater for up to two hundred and fifty soldiers per meal (with two chefs including myself if I was lucky).

In Barracks or out field, it is a far larger operation for us. I have been a part of a team of army chefs that have cooked five thousand serves per meal, three times a day for upwards of three weeks straight, often working well over sixteen hours each day. I really enjoy these kinds of large group activities because you get to see how other chefs cook and operate under pressure. This is a great way to learn from each other and really expands my technical and logistical skills.

B: What are the specific OH&S challenges that a chef in the Army face that is different from most chefs?

JN: You don’t want sick soldiers under your watch. Much the same as you don’t want sick customers in your restaurant. We are subjected to numerous challenges in our daily job as we are working, very often in locations that are not classic kitchen environments. We tend to work in tents, usually open ended, where we are subject to wind gusts, and changes in weather and occasionally animals pop their heads in to say hello. Winds and dust can be a real problem in particular around some dry and dusty areas, but we are well trained on dealing with environmental challenges. Apart from weather we very conscious of food and equipment hygiene. The principles of HACCP don’t strictly apply out in field conditions, however where possible we do follow it. This includes food and equipment physical, visual and temperature checks.

Cross contamination is one of our worst enemies. Lucky for us, it is easily combated. On top of these challenges, we also have the army occupational hazards of working long hours, juggling cooking and guard duties/ patrols/ secondary duties to protect our assets against our “scenario enemies”. All the while trying to get the meals up on time.

B: Would you recommend a career in the ADF for young guys who want to be certified chefs?

JN: Depends on the individual. But in short, yes I definitely would recommend enlisting. It is an interesting life and for young kids it’s a way of getting excellent, civilian recognised training with a fair pay and excellent benefits without having to worry about some of the issues you may have to deal with as a civilian apprentice chef. There are times where you can be cooking for the masses and other times where you are carrying a rifle to walking through the Aussie scrub patrolling. Every day is different. The only constant in the army is change. For some, this suits them well. It stops them from becoming trapped in the typical 9-5 mentality. For others they do not like it, as it is hard to get into a daily routine due to the nature of the job

The other big plus for a chef is that menus are not cyclic. The meals we cook change dramatically from day to day and are dependent on what provisions we have to work with. Certainly boredom and menu repetition in the kitchen is not an issue!

The other plus is learning lifelong skills and knowledge that you can use outside of the kitchen and your military career all the while indirectly and if you are fortunate, directly defending your country.