Series Premiere

Wednesday 26th November
20:00 on five

Beginning this week on Five is a new four-part series that profiles the men and women responsible for feeding the 120,000 British troops stationed overseas. From battlefield to banquet hall, the combat chefs are charged with the task of making hearty meals every day, whatever the weather and whatever the situation. In the opening instalment, soldiers at the front line in Afghanistan get a rare culinary treat, and the heat is on for the army chefs at a cookery competition in Germany.

For the 2,500 chefs of the Royal Logistics Corps, the Defence Food Services School in Aldershot is where it all begins. After undergoing the rigorous training necessary to become soldiers, these young men and women are then turned into chefs. But as well as learning regular kitchen skills, the new recruits are taught how to cook using nothing more than dustbins, mud and open fires. The skill, known as ‘improvised cookery’, is unique to the British Army. Supervising the latest outdoor training exercise is Cpt Scott Dunlop. “There’s quite a lot to take in,” he says.

For the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards stationed at forward operating base (FOB) Keenan in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, good food is hard to come by. Charged with rebuilding the war-torn community and defending the locals from Taliban rebels, these troops have lived and worked in this remote area for five months. The vast majority of their food comes courtesy of boil-in-the-bag ration packs dropped by army helicopters.

Luckily, culinary help is at hand. Based at the nearby FOB Price, Staff Sgt Hewitt is the battalion’s master
chef. At Price, SSgt Hewitt’s team of 11 chefs feeds 300 troops a day with fresh fruit, roast dinners and barbecues. “This is the best food in Afghanistan,” says SSgt Hewitt. Once a month, the cooks travel to FOB Keenan to raise morale with some good, home-cooked food. But getting to Keenan is no picnic.

Swapping chef’s whites for body armour, Hewitt and two members of his team must cross the notorious
Green Zone in a heavily armed convoy. After a tense night-time journey, the cooks arrive at FOB Keenan and set about building the kitchen from which they will feed 160 hungry soldiers. On the menu today is a range of healthy, balanced meals, including chicken, potatoes and fresh vegetables. After swiftly knocking up an oven and a large hot plate using old mortar boxes and mud, 18-year-old cook Pte Tracy Montgomery is not convinced the setup will work. “You do feel like you’re under a bit of pressure!” she says. However, just a few hours later, SSgt Hewitt and his two protégés have put together hundreds of hearty dishes that will keep the division going for days. Upon returning from patrol, the soldiers are delighted with the prospect of hot food. “It does make a big difference,” says LCpl Amy Roberts. “It makes everyone happy.” For those stationed at the base perimeter, there is even a takeaway service. “Having a master chef down here once a month is fantastic,” says Mjr Thomas Charles. “It provides a serious element to the moral fibre of the company.”

In the relative calm of Gütersloh in Germany, combat chefs from the British Army have assembled for an annual competition designed to take the art of improvised cookery to ever-higher levels. Twenty teams of cooks compete in a gruelling culinary contest, interspersed with field exercises. Judging the chefs’ efforts is Mjr Harry Lomas of the London District –the army’s most prestigious catering division. “It’s a bit like ‘Scrapheap Challenge’ versus ‘MasterChef’,” he explains.

Each team must produce a three-course meal from a box of gourmet ingredients, including chorizo sausage, fresh salmon and guinea fowl. But before the cooking can begin, the teams must build their kitchens using items as diverse as old filing cabinets and metal buckets. After encountering the odd disaster, including a tray full of charred birds that he describes as “guinea-fowl jerky”, Mjr Lomas thinks he has found a winner. Using an ingenious second oven to create charcoal, Sgt Jay Kingsbury and his team have come up with a gastro-pub feast, featuring prawn and chorizo parcels, mushroom risotto and lamb loin stuffed with black pudding.

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