Worthy Down military chefs faced bullets to deliver food to troops in Afghanistan

Military chefs produce top notch food for troops fighting on the front line

Military chefs produce top notch food for troops fighting on the front line

First published in Winchester Andover Advertiser: Photograph of the Author by

THE OLD adage that an army marches on its stomach applies just as much today as it did during the Wars of the Roses.

So top brass always go to extraordinary lengths to boost the spirits of those on the front line through a fillip in their fodder.

Such is the enormity of what a well-trained 21st century military chef can add to the fight, they are referred to as “force-multipliers”.

Probably the most well-known recent stomach-booster was in Afghanistan and called Operation Come Dine With Me.

For this logistics officers really had to think out of the (food) box as they despatched chefs to some of the most remote and dangerous parts of the country – specifically to cheer up soldiers and naval Royal Marines in the thick of the fighting.

Among those to take part in the operation was WO1 Gary Medlock, 36, who flew around the frontline in a Chinook filled with 500kg of fresh food supplies.

Once landed, he and his team would tip as much food as they could into their bergens and then walk right into the heart of the battle.

WO Medlock then had to use whatever he could get his hands on to create a spontaneous feast, sometimes using a metal dustbin as a makeshift oven by tipping it onto its side, suspending it over a fire and slapping some mud over the top to act as insulation.

As the months passed, he fed literally thousands of troops.

“It was important, it contributed to the fighting line,” said WO Medlock.

“We wanted to prove we could do it and created a map of the country so we could track where we had flown.

“I didn’t fire a shot but there was fighting all around us when going to various check points.”

Unsurprisingly, given the significance of his input, WO Medlock later received a Queen’s Commendation for the deployment.

Royal Navy, Army and RAF chefs are trained at Worthy Down Camp, a few miles north of Winchester.

The school runs both basic and advanced courses, simulating the harsh environments in which the cooks will be required to pull the bunny out of the hat or, more probably, the spaghetti bolognaise out of the oven.

Tutors first marinade the students in the skills they need to acquire to pass, then fling them out onto MoD land near Barton Stacey for four days and three nights to cook, cook, cook - and stew on their progress in between.

“By the time they’re putting the kitchen back on the truck at the end they’re so physically and mentally tired,” said tutor Sgt Mark Carey, 33, from Essex.

“But they need to be ready for anything.”

In December 2009 Sgt Carey was sent to an outlying patrol base in Afghanistan to show them how to construct a makeshift oven when someone handed him a turkey and asked if he’d mind whipping something for 60 with it.

Several hours later a full Christmas dinner was on the table, complete with pigs in blankets, potatoes and other vegetables – all cooked on a metal grate placed over a fire and served by chefs wearing Santa hats.

“You just use what you have but it isn’t always easy,” he explained.

“And you have to cook differently - when you’ve got direct heat underneath you have to keep a close eye on everything.”

All personnel on the ground receive ration boxes containing enough ingredients to create a range of healthy meals.

But the Army discovered long ago how by pooling supplies and adding a sprinkling of fresh food and ingenuity, it was possible to create something vastly more appealing for the fighting palate.

“We give our chefs the skills to take the packs apart and, say, knock up some fresh pasta or bread,” said experienced chef WO2 James Wilson-White.

“It’s all about the imagination of the individual.

“Nearly every patrol base in Afghanistan had a military chef there.

“It’s not good for the soldiers to be on a 24 hour ration pack for a sustained period.

“Every day you want to make a difference, so when the guys walk in tired and hungry, they can see that you’re going the extra distance too.”

In the operational field, Army chefs usually feed around 40 soldiers – a company – from a tented kitchen, equipped with an oven and hot plates.

Senior officers describe them as “very portable”, and they are to a point, though soldiers’ shoulders sag at the mere thought of swiftly erecting all 440kgs of poles and canvas, and being poised to cook in 40 minutes.

The oven alone weighs a knee-buckling 57kgs, with the Multi-Purpose Cooking Vessel – a massive bain-marie that can hold enough stew feed 200 – clocking in at 35kg.

But they invariably get the job done.

When the British first arrived at Afghanistan’s Camp Bastion a string of these tents were strung together to successfully feed 6,000 troops.

Flexibility - the ability to produce tasty food in the most eye-popping conditions – is at the heart of the chefs’ lives.

Once ignited the cooking equipment puts out a keen heat, which means that during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan temperatures within tents sometimes rose as high as 63 degrees.

Yet a month later the same chef could find themselves knocking up a breakfast in Norway in minus 17.

Give him or her a few more weeks and they could be back in Britain applying a delicate garnish to fine dining for 200.

Last February Worthy Down chefs were feeding 500 sailors, soldiers and air personnel a day when they were drafted into Hampshire to help with the flooding crisis.

But is the food actually any good?

As usual with these things, the proof was in the pudding.

And the “duff” – as the military call it – rendered the Chronicle photographer silent for a full seven and a half minutes.

Which, as anyone who has worked in the world of journalism with attest, is nothing short of a miracle.

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