(Via Ho’okele News)
Story and photo by Tech. Sgt. Terri Paden
15th Wing Public Affairs
A Team Hickam Airman was recently chosen to represent the Air Force on the Joint Culinary Arts Team Hawaii.
As part of the team, Staff Sgt. Sheryl Stewart, 647th Force Support Squadron (FSS), will join 15 Soldiers, Sailors and Marines from around the island to face off in the annual Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event (MCACTE) in Fort Lee, Va. next year.
The MCACTE is one of the largest culinary competitions in North America. The competition is sanctioned by the American Culinary Federation and showcases the talents of military chefs from around the globe in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.
To secure her spot on the team, Stewart competed against military chefs on the island to prove she has what it takes to go on to the national competition, but she didn’t stop there.
“I had the most experience on the team. I’ve been in the longest and I have the most technical knowledge, so they wanted me to be the team’s captain. But they didn’t give it to me. I had to prove to the team I deserved the position,” Stewart said.
Stewart said her culinary skills were put to the test in front of the whole team. She was given 30 minutes to prepare a meal from the ingredients in a mystery basket while being critiqued by leadership and her fellow team members before being officially named the team’s leader.
Though Stewart’s position on the team was hard-earned, Master Sgt. Margo Ham, 647th FSS Joint Base Lodging section chief and Stewart’s supervisor, said she never had any doubt Stewart would excel.
“Knowing Stewart’s passion for culinary arts, there was no question. I needed to do whatever possible as her supervisor to ensure she had the opportunity to try out for the team,” Ham said. “This opportunity comes around once a year and her DEROS [date eligible for return from overseas] is next August, so I’m so glad she worked hard to prove she was worthy to capture the only Air Force slot this year.
“Her passion, leadership abilities and dedication to success will take her to the next level and hopefully win some gold medals at the competition. Words can’t properly express how proud I am of her,” Ham said.
Now with preparations for the competition in full swing, Stewart has temporarily relocated to Schofield Barracks to spend each day until the competition training with her team members. The coming months will be spent perfecting their competition menus and working on technical skills.
As team captain, it’s Stewart’s job to make sure the team has everything they need to be successful.
Though she has never participated in a cooking competition of this magnitude, Stewart said she will draw upon her years of experience to coach the team along.
“I’ve been cooking since I was 13 years old,” she said. “My mother taught me to cook early, and I would make dinner for my whole family two or three times a week.
“I love to cook; it’s in me. It’s like my sanctuary. I feel at ease when I’m cooking and I can be 100 percent creative. I can’t draw very well but I can cook great,” Stewart said.
In addition to cooking for her family, Stewart has attended culinary arts school and also credits catering and an internship at a restaurant in Germany as helping her hone her craft.
“I didn’t always like cooking but the older I get, the more I enjoy it,” she said. “I’m always working on my craft.
“Cooking is something you need to constantly practice or you will lose it. I used to cook in the dorm kitchens when I was a young Airman working in the dining facility. I’m constantly cooking outside of work. I go home and cook dinner for my family now. I practice my techniques at home,” she explained.
Stewart said practice is especially important leading up to the national competition because though every team member was hand selected, the experience level on the team varies. In addition to being judged on taste, they will also be judged on appearance, presentation, technique and technical skill.
“This is not like cooking at home,” she said. “The competition is about technical skills. You have to be very precise. We’re talking fine-dining type of plating skills so we have to work at that.”
Stewart said all the months of hard work will be worth it when they bring home the win.
“Our goal is to win, of course,” she said. “We’re going to take home first place. With the amount of enthusiasm and excitement everyone has, there’s no doubt in my mind we can’t win.”