News Release Distributed 11/14/13
FORT POLK, La. – The U.S. Army has honored Sgt. Melvin Jennings for helping 4-H students prepare for a statewide 4-H culinary competition.
Col. Bret Van Camp, commander of the 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade at Fort Polk, presented the Certificate of Appreciation for Volunteer Service award along with brigade Sgt. Maj. Melvin Rutledge at a ceremony at Fort Polk on Oct. 28.
The award was a result of Jennings’ work with the Vernon Parish 4-H Next Healthy Food Star team’s preparations for the 2013 4-H University held on the LSU campus in June.
LSU AgCenter 4-H agent Kem Johnson in Vernon Parish said the award was well-deserved. “He loves what he does, and it shows.”
Jennings, a cook for the 41st Transportation Co. of the 1st MEB, volunteered more than 50 hours working with the team, instructing the students on food and kitchen safety and knife skills, and getting them ready for the vigorous state competition where they placed fifth.
The competition required the students to cook a low-calorie seafood dish and present it to the judges with information on safety, nutrition and the effect of the seafood industry on Louisiana. They got a first-hand look at the cafeteria where Jennings works to provide meals for hundreds of troops. Many of their practice sessions were held at Fort Polk’s educational facility.
Jennings worked with Hunter Minion, a junior at Evans High School, and Jozie Castillo, a junior at Anacoco High School.
Jennings plans to continue working with the Vernon Parish 4-H program to train future teams as well as help plan and conduct 4-H workshops on preparing healthy meals and culinary techniques.
Johnson said she got the idea of enlisting the Army for help after reading about a competitive cooking team at Fort Polk. She made a few phone calls, and eventually Jennings rose to the challenge.
Johnson said Jennings worked well with the students, and she said credit belongs to Christy Oliver, former LSU AgCenter nutrition agent and now 4-H agent in Iberia Parish, for working closely with Jennings and the team.
“I got them started and then she (Oliver) took over and spent numerous hours with the kids and Sgt. Jennings,” Johnson said. “It was a perfect fit with a great guy. He is looking forward to doing more with us.”
“He’s an outstanding guy, and he’s a great role model,” Oliver said. “He wants to be there. He was willing to go beyond what he needed to do to get those kids ready. Sgt. Jennings is a wonderful asset to the U.S. Army and to the Vernon Parish 4-H program.”
The dish the team prepared was poached redfish with a vegetable mix. They not only had to learn to cook the dish, but they also had to research Louisiana seafood for a presentation they made to judges.
They finished fifth out of 11 competitors. Oliver said that was a good showing considering it was the first year that Vernon Parish participated in the competition. Minion and Castillo plan to participate again in 2014.
Jennings, a father of four, said he got more than just personal satisfaction out of the experience.
“I definitely enjoyed it, and I learned some things about nutrition, too,” Jennings said.
He is currently in charge of baking pastries and desserts, cooking for 300-400 people a day. He also was part of the 2013 Fort Polk Culinary Arts Team in a competition this year among 200 chefs in the U.S. armed forces.
In his 10th year in the Army, Jennings said he plans to open a restaurant when he leaves the service, although he’s not sure where. “I want a restaurant and a catering business.”
He is passionate about cooking and serving food well.
“The more I pour out there in the world, maybe there will be better food out there. There are so many places with no customer service, no love, no flavor,” he said.
Teaching youngsters to cook is not new for Jennings. He did it when he was stationed in Okinawa, and he’s teaching his 8-year-old daughter to cook. “She can cook a four-course breakfast.”
Team member Castillo admitted she was intimidated when she learned that an Army sergeant would be her coach, but she quickly dismissed any notions of a big, tough-talking military man.
“He was an amazing mentor,” she said. “I thought I knew a lot about cooking, but he showed me a lot.”
Just choosing and using a knife properly was an eye-opener, she said. “I realized I was holding it wrong and using the wrong ones.”
But she said Jennings’ lessons went beyond the kitchen. “He told us to be strong and believe in what we are doing. He taught us to be strong and confident.”
Minion, Castillo’s teammate, said he had cooked before the competition, but he learned knife skills and proper sanitation. Also, Jennings taught him techniques of changing flavors with just a few slight variations in the ingredients, and he learned how to cook without using oils or fats.
“He also taught us that women appreciate a man who knows how to cook,” Minion said.Bruce Schultz