F.E. Warren AFB hosts former "Top Chef" contestants in friendly competition

Chef Justin Sutherland demonstrates a technique to Staff Sergeant Antoni “Ant” Miller, left, and Airman First Class Juan Miguel Perez during the F.E. Warren Air Force Base Iron Chef Competition in Cheyenne. Three teams of five airmen were paired with one former Top Chef Season 16 contestant and were given one hour to cook before being judged. (Photo by Michael Cummo, Wyoming Tribune Eagle)

CHEYENNE — It’s hard to keep up morale on military bases, especially among those working in the kitchen. But when there’s an event that allows servicemen and women to face off in teams named The Startled Koalas, Kitchen Regulators and Chop It Like It’s Hot, fun is unavoidable.

“Normally in the services career field, morale is low due to the monotony of cooking,” said Chadwell Dining Facility Manager James Bruhl. “When the airmen heard that there were chefs coming to give them some training, everyone was ecstatic.”

Three teams of six chefs went head-to-head Tuesday at F.E. Warren Air Force Base for the first stop of the United Service Organization’s Celebrity Chef Tour. Each team was made up of five food service personnel from the base and one celebrity chef, the latter of whom were all contestants on season 16 of Bravo’s “Top Chef.”

Bruhl said the celebrity chefs – David Viana, Kevin Scharpf and Justin Sutherland – are traveling the U.S. to boost morale at military bases via events such as cooking competitions, and USO reached out to F.E. Warren to see if Cheyenne would be the first stop. The 90th Force Support Squadron holds in-house chef competitions quarterly, but Bruhl said this is the first competition with chefs of this caliber to ever take place on base.

The competition kicked off with a rowdy introduction of the 15 airmen involved, all of whom were hand-picked for the event and work at either Chadwell Dining Facility or ICBM Feeding Operations. Everyone’s name, hometown and specialty dish were announced, along with the occasional nickname – including “the Sultan of Stir Fry.”

The 90th Missile Wing Commander Col. Peter Bonetti, one of the five event judges, also gave an enthusiastic welcome to the contestants and other attendees.

“There are two kinds of people in this world: those who eat to live and those who live to eat, and I’m the latter,” Bonetti said with a laugh. “So I could not be more excited for this.”

Every team was then given an hour to create six servings of a dish of their choice that had to be made from scratch and include the secret ingredient, lamb, which was announced right before the clock began.

The lighthearted feel to the competition quickly intensified the second a sea of military-green boots entered the kitchen of Chadwell Dining Facility. Teams huddled with their celebrity chef leader at the helm, debating what they should make and then creating an action plan.

Teams weren’t allowed to use any wireless devices or written recipes, so they relied on each other to ensure their dish would rank high in the categories they’d be judged on: texture and doneness; taste and tenderness; creativity and originality; portion size and nutrition balance; and serving and presentation.

Col. Carolyn Ammons, 90th Mission Support Group commander and another judge for the event, said that because F.E. Warren is a missile base, it has more chefs than other bases. Food service personnel train at F.E. Warren and are eventually sent to one of 15 missile field locations.

This competition was thus extremely educational for the airmen, she said.

“This is good practice for when they deploy,” Ammons said. “It develops new skills and techniques before they go out and essentially run a whole kitchen in a missile field.”

The competition wasn’t ICBM Food Service Specialist Angela Bolanos’ first time working alongside seasoned professional chefs. The airman traveled to The Culinary Institute of America to represent the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren when it won the John L. Hennessy Award for Best Missile Feeding Operation in 2017.

That experience taught her a great deal, but she said she was particularly excited to work with a former “Top Chef” contestant in this competition because the circumstances were completely different.

“That was 5-star – very fancy,” Bolanos said. “So I’m excited to learn a more laid-back style of cooking (today).”

That educational opportunity proved rewarding for both the airmen and the celebrity chefs.

“They do a lot for us,” Chef Justin Sutherland said of members of the military. “So this is a chance for us to do something for them.”

Although every team received rave reviews from the judges for their creative lamb dishes, chef Kevin Scharpf and his team, Chop It Like It’s Hot, ended up on top. The judges said they loved the tenderness and juiciness of the team’s lamb stew, for which they deep-fried the bone to add a special touch.

Bonetti awarded each of the five airmen on the winning team – Bolanos, Tajah Ellis, Jonathan Cunningham, Jasmine Moore and Sharon Zayzay – a coin and a two-day pass, aka the special (and rare) award of two days off.

The goal of the event was to allow the airmen to showcase their skills during a friendly competition, Bruhl said, recalling a memory that summed up the joyous feeling that lingered throughout the afternoon.

“After this morning’s session, one airman came up to me and said this is the best day of his military career,” Bruhl said.