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Speedy Army Chefs fuel the troops on Exercise Steadfast Defender

The healthy appetites of hundreds of hungry soldiers meeting deadlines on a massive NATO exercise has challenged Army and civilian chefs and given a new meaning to fast food.

A team of chefs – 18 military and four civilians - have been feeding between 500 and 1,000 soldiers a day as troops arrive at NATO’s Forward Holding Base in Germany for the start of Exercise Steadfast Defender 24. The troops and vehicles were en route to Poland from the UK.

The first soldiers to stage through the Forward Holding Base were the Headquarters of 7th Light Mechanised Brigade Combat Team

Time counts when catering for large numbers. It also takes good planning, co-ordination, and the ability to work under pressure to serve so many people. As soon as the doors open, soldiers are queuing at the hotplate for food.

The chefs are part of a composite group of logistical specialists known as the Enabling Group South and temporarily based at Normandy Barracks, Sennelager.

The 400-strong team is made up mostly of units from 104th Theatre Sustainment Brigade whose job is to facilitate the entire movement of UK troops through Germany.

The chefs are at work in the kitchen at 5am preparing breakfast which is served at 6.30am. Healthy eating is important - scrambled eggs are steamed, bacon is grilled, and the only items cooked in oil are fried eggs. Beyond the full English breakfast, options range from cereal, muesli, fruit, and yoghurt.

Lunch offers five or even six main choices made up of two carbohydrate selections - normally potatoes, two or three choices of vegetables and a protein dish ranging from grilled chicken to fish and pie to lasagne. Salad is also available.

The chefs cater for any specific dietary requirements and there are gluten free and vegetarian options always available.

Ninety nine percent of the food is cooked from fresh, and deliveries of fresh produce arrives twice a week. There is also a weekly delivery of tinned and frozen food.

Unit Catering Warrant Officer, WO2 Niraj Rai said: “The only reason we use prepared products is to save time.

“We used tinned tomatoes to make Spaghetti Bolognese and we use bread mix to make rolls to accompany the freshly made soup. Every minute counts when you are preparing lunch for over 500 people.” 

And there are always soldiers prepared to tell them what they think, either in person or through the comments book. 

“The comments book is there for the soldiers to give feedback - good or bad - and to put in requests, which we try to meet. If we read it’s somebody’s birthday, we will make them a cake. It’s the little things which make a difference.” Unit Catering Warrant Officer,
WO2 Niraj Rai

The chefs are split across three shifts and work in two kitchens. One kitchen is to cater for the permanent staff who are based in the barracks for the duration of the exercise. The other kitchen is exclusively for the troops who are transiting through the base and heading further into Europe.

The ten-hour long lunchtime shift starts at 10am while the night shift works from 8.30pm to 5.30am. They prepare the food ready for the breakfast shift and will be ready to cook a warming plate of food to soldiers finishing work later or arriving at the base late at night. A middle shift is also prepared to work at peak times if required.

A set menu is worked out at the start of each week with every Wednesday being a theme night. These have included Burns night and nights to showcase food from different countries such as Mexican, Chinese, and Caribbean cuisine.

One of the lunchtime favourites is Nasi Goreng – an Indonesian rice-based dish is good for making use of any surplus food left over from breakfast.

Niraj said: “We add sausages, bacon, anything leftover really to a few other fresh ingredients. It’s a big hit with the soldiers.”

The evening menu often includes curry, kebabs, pork, pizza with a freshly made base or fish.

By the end of the exercise, it is estimated the chefs will have cooked over 100,000 eggs, used nearly two tonnes of potatoes, and dished out countless loaves of bread.

They will remain at the NATO Forward Holding Base throughout the exercise. The next unit to stage through will be 12 Armoured Brigade Combat Team followed by units from 16 Air Assault Brigade.

Ex Steadfast Defender is NATO’s largest military exercise since the Cold War. It demonstrates the unbreakable bond between NATO allies in Europe and North America, who have kept over one billion people safe for 75 years.

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