- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

FORT LEE, Va. Army Staff Sgt. Sonianica Matthews doesn't care how tough a soldier is, in her class he still has to start with the basics: slicing and dicing.

At the Fort Lee Army post just south of Richmond, soldiers going through chef training get a crash course on it. Though many of her soldiers don't know a paring knife from a steak knife or the proper way to measure flour, they will eventually bake pies and cook enough three-course meals for an army literally.

The soldiers work eight-hour days in the kitchen for eight weeks to complete their training and become certified chefs, or as the Army likes to call them food-service specialists.

"It's not just a regular McDonald's cook," said Sgt. Matthews, who prefers her pupils a little green. "A lot of them have no experience. But the better cooks are the ones who have no experience. Then I can mold them."

The first week of training is devoted to sanitation, before the trainees move on to basic cooking skills in week two and baking in week three.

It's the second day of week three and today the 12 trainees are tackling the chocolate chip cookie. Yesterday, the battle was making muffins. Tomorrow, they will fight to create pies.

One of the instructors is wearing combat boots, a camouflage uniform, a white apron and a chef hat.

The other instructor a tall, burly man barks out orders on texture and taste.

"I'd be lying if I said I always liked everything they cooked," chief instructor Sgt. 1st Class Rodney Blacksher said. "You can always tell by the taste who is following the recipe."

Sgt. Blacksher sees his role as a cook as just the job he performs for the Army, no different than being an infantryman.

Some of his students come in apprehensive about cooking, while others have culinary degrees. Regardless of their background, he said, they come in to the classroom as equals.

Two of Sgt. Matthews' most enthusiastic are a couple of brothers from Georgia: Pvts. Eric and Edric Cunningham enlisted in April, went through basic training and are now learning the secrets of cooking together.

"It was something we decided to do together," Pvt. Eric Cunningham said. "It's good to have family here."

Pvt. Edric Cunningham enjoys making desserts, particularly brownies. His brother has more fun with the meats.

The brothers are now learning how to cook for more than 200 people in large garrison training.

"It's actually pretty fun," Pvt. Edric Cunningham said.

Students are graded on the presentation, smell and taste of their dishes.

From Fort Lee, they may cook for soldiers at a post in the United States or overseas. They can also choose to go to an even higher level of culinary art, where they learn to prepare meals for the military's top brass.

In the upper-level cooking class, chefs learn how to properly present food for formal functions and more complicated dishes like chocolate souffles and crusted salmon mascarpone. Out of the 84 chefs that come through the training facility, six of them make it to the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team, an elite, competitive group of Army chefs.

The chefs compete in international cooking competitions. The U.S. team won the world championship among military competitors in the International Culinary Olympics in 2000.

For Sgt. Matthews, her first duty is to her country, not her food.

"I'm still a soldier," she said. "Even though I'm here teaching school, I can get a call to go out somewhere any time."

She estimates between her classes and cooking for her family, she cooks about 10 hours a day. She cooks the holiday meals for her mother, who often calls Sgt. Matthews for one of the more than 300 recipes she has learned in the Army.

Her family loves the desserts she makes, and her children like to put on her boots and apron and march around the kitchen.

"Once you do it this much, you grow to love it," she said. "It's something you'll always do."

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