Spc. Huy Nguyen, poised, prepared and seemingly fearless just months ago at the Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event at Fort Lee, Va., is feeling the pressure now.
Almost immediately after returning from one competition, Nguyen began training for the next. His coach and mentor, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Bogle, not only is helping the student chef perfect a new menu but also build the confidence that led Nguyen to earn the title of Student Chef of the Year.
“He’s going to be competing against the best civilian student chefs across the United States, and there’s no doubt that he deserves to be there because, right now, he’s considered the best student chef in the military,” Bogle said.
In a few weeks, the 1st Brigade Combat Team cook will travel to Orlando, Fla., for the American Culinary Federation National Convention and Show. No service member has ever won Student Chef of the Year at the national convention, and that lends itself to additional pressure on anyone put in that position. Bogle was impressed by how hard Nguyen trained for the Fort Lee event, and he knows the student chef can rise to the challenge once again.
“He is only 19, but he has nerves of steel, and nothing got to him during the competition,” Bogle said. “He was hungry for the title, he went out and did what we trained for and he earned that title.”
Starting from scratch
It wasn’t long ago when Nguyen was just beginning to learn how to cook as a culinary food specialist. He initially wanted to be a parachute rigger, but because he would have been placed on holdover status to become airborne-qualified, he decided to cook his way into the Army.
“In the back of my mind, I reminded myself how much I loved cooking and how I love experimenting with food,” Nguyen said. “I do it all the time at home with my Family. I didn’t know what a food service specialist did, but they told me I would cook for a living, and so I said, ‘sign me up for that.’”
Nguyen arrived at Fort Drum in December 2015 straight out of the culinary schoolhouse at Fort Lee, Va., that graduates more than 4,000 Soldiers and Marines annually as food specialists. His first day in the 1st Brigade Combat Team Dining Facility was one of awkwardness as Nguyen tried to figure out his place in the kitchen crew.
“It was close to Christmastime, and I had to work a weekend,” Nguyen recalled. “I walked in feeling like I didn’t know anything. I was placed in starches and vegetables, and I literally just stood there, not knowing what to do until one of the NCOs came over and showed me what I needed to do. It was really weird.”
In a span of little over a year, Nguyen would leap from relative obscurity as a cook to becoming an up-and-coming military culinarian. He earned a spot on the Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team in late 2016, and in his first Military Culinary Arts Competitive Event, he was named Student Chef of the Year.
That honor alone would have been plenty for most novice chefs, but Nguyen received additional recognition by being selected out of 28 candidates to join the prestigious U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team (USACAT).
Train as you would compete
“Are you ready?” Bogle asked.
“Always ready,” Nguyen replied.
And with that, the clock was set for 60 minutes, and the junior chef began preparing a duck course for four.
Bogle reminded Nguyen that he has to practice as if he were in competition, and so he wears his chef jacket and hat every time he rehearses in the kitchen.
He had already run through the duck menu from start to finish twice before, and Nguyen has had several sessions where he cooked individual components. It is still a work in progress – elements may get added or removed in the coming days, such as when he replaced cranberries with apricots in the sausage. Bogle said they may soon experiment with a duck confit.
Right now, the menu consists of a pan-seared duck breast with a rosemary-infused raspberry sauce, accompanied with a wild mushroom and asiago risotto, roasted root vegetables and sautéed asparagus. In addition to apricots in the duck sausage, Nguyen will prepare it with pistachios and fried duck gizzard.
Nguyen’s best time for fabricating a duck was 8:47, which is decent, but Bogle said that he will need to shave that down to six minutes by competition time. Bogle said that the student chef had a lot of practice butchering chickens during student skills training, and cutting down a duck is similar.
“He’ll get there,” Bogle said confidently. “Most people try for 10 minutes, but using one-sixth of your cooking time to fabricate your duck is not a good idea.”
Bogle said that Nguyen will continue to practice his menu dozens of times before competition, and he will receive additional counsel from retired Sgt. Maj. David Turcotte later in June. Turcotte, a former Armed Forces Professional Chef of the Year, is well-known in the military culinary universe, having won numerous medals as a USACAT member for more than 14 years. He has captained teams, judged competitions as an American Culinary Federation-certified judge and served as executive chef in the Pentagon.
During one training session in May, Warrant Officer Billy Ray Daugette III, 2nd Brigade Combat Team command food technician, checked in on the student chef. Another former Armed Forces Chef of the Year, Daugette has extensive competition experience, having served on the Pentagon team and attended the “Culinary Olympics” as a member of the U.S.
Army Culinary Arts Team. Before arriving at Fort Drum, Daugette worked as chef de cuisine in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and he deployed with the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Daugette emphasized attention to details and the importance of mise en place – having everything a chef needs in its proper place and within reaching distance. He told Nguyen that missing small steps, like not having a steady cutting board, will cost him time and efficiency. He expressed concern about making a risotto, which, in his words, can be a “killer” if not executed perfectly. Basically, Daugette said, a chef only has a minute to get it from pot to plate and in front of the judge.
He also doled out a little praise.
“I’m a firm believer that you have the ability to win this,” Daugette told Nguyen. “You’re doing great. Bogle and I have been through the same rigmarole, but not at the same level as you. We never did Junior Chef at nationals – came close.
You’re trying to do something that we haven’t done before. You want to break new ground, you’re not going to get it easy.”
Confidence is key
Bogle was concerned when Nguyen appeared flustered during Daugette’s visit, and he reminded him that he needs to get used to cooking in front of people again.
“I am,” Nguyen countered. “Just not now. I will be.”
Bogle said that the more times Nguyen practices a dish, the more his confidence level rises.
The secret sauce that all successful chefs possess is confidence. They have confidence in their ability to put their best food forward all day, every day, even if they don’t always have enough time, the ingredients they want or the energy to cook.
It was confidence that Nguyen demonstrated in March at the Military Culinary Arts Training Event at Fort Lee, Va., after spending every possible minute he had preparing his dessert menu with Bogle and Sgt. 1st Class Lagena Boggs, two accomplished pastry chefs.
“I give them all the credit for what I accomplished,” Nguyen said. “I spent all of my time with them working on those plates, and when I wasn’t here (at the Culinary Arts Center), I was at Sgt. Bogle’s house practicing. I put a lot of time into it. I came in every weekend I could to practice. I wanted to stay as late as I could, too, but these chefs have Families, and I didn’t want to take up time they could spend with them.”
When his name was called out at the awards ceremony as Student Chef of the Year, Nguyen was stunned.
“The feeling is indescribable,” he said. “In my head I told myself that this trophy isn't for me, it was for my team. They supported me since Day One. It was an amazing feeling, seeing the looks on my teammates’ faces, knowing I made them all proud and also knowing I made my Family proud.”
Early on during the weeklong competition, Nguyen said that he became cognizant that people were watching him, and not just the panel of judges – culinary instructors, senior leaders and other competitors. It might not have been obvious to him, but the event has been known to serve as a sort of recruiting mechanism – for USACAT and sought-after culinary positions throughout the Department of Defense.
One of those observers was Chief Warrant 3 Jesse Ward, the Advanced Food Service Training Division chief at Fort Lee.
“Chief Ward looks for talent and actually chose Nguyen (for USACAT) due to his execution and his professionalism,” Bogle said. “The fact that he got Chief Ward’s attention says it all.”
Ward said that with trainers like Bogle and Boggs, whom he knows very well, Nguyen was in capable hands.
“I know that they can teach, but I wanted to see how well Nguyen took to their training,” Ward said. “He showed me that by what he demonstrated. The fact that he is only 19 and has learned quite quickly shows great potential.”
Ward observed Nguyen during the Student Chef of the Year event and during the Student Skills event to see how he worked as part of a team.
“Working in a live kitchen with a team is essential for USACAT members,” he said. “This environment requires poise, confidence, dexterity and the ability to adjust to unexpected events.”
Ward said that Nguyen will serve as an apprentice on the USACAT team, studying under a primary member.
“He will gain very valuable experience both training and participating in culinary events,” Ward said.
Nguyen said he looks forward to joining the USACAT team and getting the experience of working with them. For now, his focus is on competing at the national convention and achieving his culinary goals.
“I just want to be the best chef I can be, and keep learning and improving my skills,” he said. “I like to stay positive.”