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Face of Defense: Soldier Cooks His Way to Culinary Big Leagues

By Army Staff Sgt. Mike Pryor
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT BRAGG, N.C., April 2, 2009 – Army Sgt. Orlando Serna has a bone to pick with anyone who thinks cooking is nothing more than throwing a few ingredients together in a pot.

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Army Sgt. Orlando Serna represents Fort Bragg, N.C., in the Practical and Contemporary Patisserie event March 4, 2009, at the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition at Fort Lee, Va. Serna also will compete in the World Culinary Olympics in 2010. U.S. Army photo by Amy Perry

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“It’s a science. Everything is a formula,” said Serna, a cook with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

Serna’s precision and attention to detail inside the kitchen enabled him to clean house at the 34th annual U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition held at Fort Lee, Va., last month. Serna won three individual awards and helped the Fort Bragg team claim Installation of the Year honors. Additionally, Serna was selected to join the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team -- the culinary equivalent of the Olympic “Dream Team.”

“It’s huge,” Serna, 32, of Atlanta, said. Serna and the rest of the Army’s culinary team will face off against cooks from all over the world during the World Culinary Olympics in 2010.

Serna’s recent accomplishments in the kitchen had humble beginnings. When he first joined the Army in 1998, the only thing he knew how to make was cookies, he said.

But after a three-year stint as a cook with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, during which he helped Fort Bragg to an Installation of the Year title in 2000, Serna knew he had found his calling. He left the Army to pursue an advanced degree in culinary technology. In 2008, armed with new skills and new techniques, Serna joined back up again, and he has been cooking his way to the top ever since.

Serna’s area of expertise is baking. He sounds like a NASA scientist as he rattles off butter ratios, browning-point temperatures, caramelization differences between sugars, and the technique required to get the perfect consistency on a chilled chocolate mousse.

“I like the geek stuff,” Serna said.

That painstaking attention to detail is what separates Serna from the rest of the pack. At the Culinary Arts Competition, a dessert centerpiece he created portraying the Muppet character “Animal” took 36 hours of work to craft, but in the end it won the “Most Artistic Exhibit in Show” award.

Despite his individual achievements, Serna was quick to give credit to the soldiers at his unit dining facility.

“At the end of the day, it’s not just you, it’s your whole [dining facility] behind you picking up the slack that allows you to succeed,” he said.

Serna also was proud of the performance of his teammate Army Sgt. Michael Williams, who was his apprentice during the competition and won a Bronze Medal.

“He has a long future out there,” Serna predicted.

Like any soldier, Serna said he knows he will be judged on how well he passes on what he knows to his subordinates.

“You can’t keep that knowledge to yourself,” he said.

The one group that won’t be benefitting from Serna’s expertise in the kitchen is his family. At home, he said, he keeps the cooking simple. What does he mostly eat there?

“A lot of cereal; quick and easy, you know?” he said.

(Army Staff Sgt. Mike Pryor serves with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team public affairs office.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgt. Orlando Serna prepares a blueberry dessert during the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition at Fort Lee, Va., in March 2009. Serna also will compete in the World Culinary Olympics in 2010. U.S. Army photo courtesy of Fort Lee Traveller  
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