FORT MCCOY, Wis. — The secret behind the success of the food service section for the Wisconsin Army National Guard's Headquarters Company, 132nd Brigade Support Battalion, is simple — it's made from scratch.
A year ago, the food service section combined some new members with some old hands, folded in some lessons on brigade support battalion field operations learned at Camp Dodge, Iowa, and worked the mixture thoroughly throughout the year. The recipe yielded an opportunity to compete for the title of best reserve component food service section in the Army March 21 at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. The section won the regional competition last year.
"I've seen this section grow by leaps and bounds from last year," said Headquarters Company 1st Sgt. Randy Lieffring. "It's a huge task for them, but they pull together, they bring out the best in each other, and they provide us with outstanding meals. They're exceeding the standard."
Staff Sgt. Aleksandr Simonov, the food operations manager and first-line cook, said the section works well together, makes dishes from scratch and uses fresh ingredients.
"We stick to the Army recipes," Simonov said, "but we try to think outside the box of what we can do to improve it — make it look better, taste better and to make a better product."
The extra effort, he said, means something to the battalion's Soldiers after a long day in the field. A poor meal does nothing to improve a tough day.
"But when they get a good meal, get to be in a friendly environment, it picks everybody up and morale is just a little bit higher," he said.
Simonov — who has 12 years experience as a professional chef — credited his company leadership with giving him and Sgt. 1st Class Jassen Hinchley, the senior food operations sergeant, the opportunity to build and train the food service section.
"Getting the opportunity to do the things I wanted to do and letting me work with my Soldiers the way I saw fit has made a huge difference in training and the environment, what they actually get to focus on," Simonov said.
As the section gathered before noon to prepare the evening meal, Simonov briefed his Soldiers on the menu, ingredient choices and procedures with the level of detail found in a combat patrol briefing. The meal consisted of spaghetti with meatballs, parmesan bread, vegetable soup, broccoli parmesan, garden salad, fruit salad and chocolate chip cookie bars. The pasta and Italian bread were not made on site, but everything else — the spaghetti sauce, meatballs, parmesan bread, fruit salad, broccoli parmesan and cookie bars — was made from scratch in a crowded and bustling containerized kitchen.
Sgt. Kyle Edwards, the Wisconsin Army National Guard's state food program manager, said he was impressed with the food service section's "professionalism, the amount of going the extra mile in using fresh herbs, spices, for more of a home-cooked, more professional Army meal." He noted that the section selected the site to set up their field complex of tents and mobile kitchen, and was largely self-sufficient.
"What it demonstrates is that they're very resilient," Lieffring said. "They have the ability to bounce back from anything put in front of them, especially in a field environment like this. They can set up, cook the most immaculate meal like they were cooking in cantonment. They're a great bunch, they have great teamwork, they have great awareness of what's going on around them, they're able to work together, have that self-regulation when things get a little tough, work through stresses and be very successful."
This was demonstrated late in the afternoon when it was time to cook the pasta and, in spite of the careful planning, there was no available pot to boil the water. Rather than melt down, the crew moved some items into the oven and made a pot available in time.
"We kept it together pretty well," said Sgt. Haley Lamasney, a food operations noncommissioned officer with the food service section, after the food had been served. "We rocked it, but we're pretty tired now."
"You guys did excellent today," agreed Chief Warrant Officer 5 Pamela Null, a Department of the Army evaluator for the Phillip A. Connelly Awards Program. "It was a great meal, and you worked great as a team. When you got down to that one-hour crunch time, 30-minute crunch time, I didn't see anyone yelling, I didn't see anything flying."
Null had positive comments for the unit leadership, food service section, field sanitation team and the "KPs" — the Soldiers tasked with helping the food service section for a day. She offered particular praise to Sgt. Amanda Niles, who was with the section when they won the regional last year, transferred to the 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation Regiment, but came back to help her old section for the national competition.
"Sgt. Niles, you did the cookies, right? That's probably one of the best cookie bars I've ever had," Null said. "It had that perfect crunch, and then it was warm and gooey inside."
Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, deputy adjutant general for Army, also praised the section.
"This is a huge achievement," Anderson said. "It really says a lot about you, not only as individual Soldiers and your skills, but coming together and functioning as a team. I have a lot of confidence that you guys are going to be heading down to Chicago to take the overall Army National Guard award."
That confidence was shared in the unit.
"I feel really good — our team has worked really hard on this," Simonov said. "At this point, I just want my guys to have a good time with it and make the best of it, do what we do best. If we win, it's a bigger bonus. If not, it's another day with great success."
"I honestly believe they could win it all," Lieffring added. "They're very positive and they're very motivated to be the best, to show that Wisconsin has something to add to the culinary art world."
Edwards noted that last year — when the Headquarters Company for the 257th Brigade Support Battalion competed for national honors in the Phillip A. Connelly Awards Program — marked the first time in a long time the Wisconsin Army National Guard ventured into the culinary competition.
"The fact that we're here two years in a row speaks volumes to where we are with food service training in the state," Edwards said.
Winners will be announced in mid-May in Chicago.