Food on the Front-Line

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 29th August 2014
By Steven Deeks   The old saying an army marches on its stomach may be true but you begin to realise just what a vital aspect it is to the British Army when you hear tales of mortar attacks only meriting a brief interruption into the cooking of much needed food for hungry soldiers – a reality that has not changed 100 years on from the start of the First World War.armypic Maintaining morale in hostile environments and being able to share the normalities that civilians take for granted in every day life is essential to those putting their lives at risk on the front-line – with good food the essential ingredient that underpins any successful operation through its ability to bond, unite and energise. “I’ve been mortared while I was cooking dinner in Afghanistan for about 30 guys,” Sergeant Graham Hopkins, an army chef of more than 18 years who has served in numerous conflict zones, reveals. “We were on location, where at the time I was on my own, when mortars started hitting the camp…you just stop what you’re doing and take cover…wait for it all to end and then get back up and carry on. The guys still need feeding so you just get on with it,” he adds nonchalantly. “Food is very important for morale,” Sgt Hopkins continues. “Soldiers who have been out on patrol with only ration packs for 30 days come back and say how much they’ve missed our food. “We would always try and give them food they’d missed, so perhaps we’d do them a nice big barbeque. Even in the normal day-to day workings of a kitchen you hear the guys coming in from whatever they’ve been doing to have a meal and a chat with their mates before going off to work again. Having that meal really gives them the chance to relax, which is important. Sergeant Graham Hopkins “A lot goes into looking after the soldiers with us trying to give them the balance of foods they need, including their five-a-day. Eating healthy is something that is strongly promoted within the army,” Sgt Hopkins, 36, adds. Such is the importance given to delivering good quality food to soldiers, the army insists on training chefs who are capable of producing dishes en-masse and in precarious conditions. “Although my dad had been an army chef I had no real interest or experience in cooking food when I joined up,” Sgt Hopkins says. “I wanted to have a trade, though, and in the end followed in my dad’s footsteps. A lot of what you learn [when training] is from experience. You get taught to use catering equipment while in the UK, where you build up your experiences until it becomes second nature.” “Through experiences you know what can and can’t be cooked in the field. It’s easy to do wet dishes like a stew or a curry but you can actually do fine dining with the equipment when out in the field – which we demonstrate with army competitions. You can produce some very good food but often it is just about giving the guys food that makes them happy.” So what is the most luxurious type of food that is served? “When I was in Baghdad I was feeding a three-star General every night, who was eating dishes like lobster on a regular basis,” Sgt Hopkins reveals. This breadth of cooking expertise encouraged by the army was recently demonstrated at one of their culinary competitions, which saw the winning entry for refined dining coming from the Catterick-based 5th Regiment Royal Artillery, who served up a sweet chilli prawn salad, chicken chasseur with roasted garlic mash and broccoli mornay, and a chocolate-orange bread and butter pudding. “I’ve cooked for 50 soldiers in Afghanistan but VIP catering is very different and this gives us an opportunity to push the boat out and show what we are capable of,” Lance Corporal Luke Smith, of the winning regiment, explained. And it seems that Britain leads the way when it comes to culinary excellence, with our American allies lagging well behind despite a significantly larger budget. “One of the main differences between the UK and the Americans is that they don’t have real chefs,” Sgt Hopkins says. “Where we are trained in catering, they are only really trained in opening boxes and warming up food. They have a lot more money for food than the British but you couldn’t just give them a load of ingredients and tell them to cook something good. Their food is a lot more basic, though there is a lot more of it. “They [the Americans] would have massive salads, as well as items they normally have back home like hot dogs, pizzas and burgers. When in Afghanistan we shared a camp with the Americans and every Sunday they would close their kitchen and come and eat in ours because we used to give them a full roast dinner. They loved it.” Often cooking from basic gas stoves in conflict zones, the tastiness of the food served would betray the apparatus used to deliver it, while often being the same as what is eaten back home from the more advanced environment of the kitchen barracks. A soldier with 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment © Crown copyright 2014 “You tend to eat more cooked breakfasts when out in the field, a lot of pasta and rice dishes, generally food that is high in carbs and protein,” Sgt Hopkins explains. “For the evening meal they would often have meat, spuds and vegetables. We work off a three-week menu cycle, so menus are all planned out once you put your orders in. The guys would get decent variety, with plenty of fresh fruit, yoghurt, juice drinks - anything you expect to get in the UK they would generally get out [on the front-line], though maybe not always as good. “Food delivery is all done through food contractors to supply fresh rations. There’s often a big distribution centre so food is sent out as and when you need it by lorry. In smaller locations it can be brought to you by helicopter. “As caterers we try to impress and give them a good service. For breakfasts, you would have toast, cereal, fried breakfast, poached egg on toast and continental breakfasts. In Kuwait we were using local fresh fruit and vegetables on a daily basis. In the Falklands fresh vegetables were brought in on aeroplanes with all the troops.” With the centenary of Britain’s entry into the First World War recently passing you would be forgiven for thinking the types of food soldiers were eating back then had significantly changed in the last 100 years. “To be honest, the food they were having in the trenches during the First World War is pretty much the same now as it was then, though I’d like to think that what we give them today is better quality,” Sgt Hopkins adds.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 29th August 2014

Food on the Front-Line