The anticipation is palpable on Mexican night at this tiny US base in the mountains of Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan. Every Thursday, soldiers start lining up an hour early as Spc. Jose Flores hand-rolls more than 200 made-to-order burritos for the base. The creative cook has earned something of a cult following in his unit for his ability to transform military rations into tasty meals.
More anomalous than the appetizing military food though, is the fact that the chef behind it is an Army cook.
Though the Army cook has long held a prominent role in military fiction and folklore, on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan they're all but obsolete. Private contractors such as KBR now run the vast majority of downrange cafeterias, while military cooks have been pushed into odd jobs like guard duty. Only occasionally are they tasked to their actual job, usually on small outposts beyond the reach of contractors where – out of practice – they get anything but positive reviews.
Through a series of lucky breaks and hard work, though, Flores has made himself a military cook who actually cooks. Now, he's arguably one of the best cooks in the Army, having worked on a cooking team that placed second in an Army-wide competition and trained under a cook who later won the title of best senior chef in the Army.
"Only a select few get this kind of experience," says Flores, describing just the amount of time he's spent in the kitchen, let alone working under high-level mentors.
During his first tour in Iraq, for example, Flores estimates that only about 20 percent of the military cooks in his unit got experience in front of the stove. With the military's reliance on contractors already widespread by the time Flores enlisted in 2003, he says rumors have been circulating for as long as he's been in uniform that the Army will do away with military cooks completely in favor of civilian contractors.
Among those who went through basic training with him, Flores says frequent deployments to large bases in Iraq and Afghanistan with contractor-run cafeterias limited their chances to grow as chefs. Fellow cooks would earn promotions for whatever duties they were assigned unrelated to cooking, he says, so by the time they returned to a kitchen they were managers removed from the food-preparation process. "I've known people who've climbed the rank ladder in food services and know very little to nothing about food service," he says.
Flores avoided this problem by landing his first duty posting at Fort Bliss, Texas, which, like many installations in the US, employed Army cooks instead of contractors. The assignment allowed him to spend two years behind the grill and join a competitive cooking team. Now when he prepares meals – even at a remote outpost – he and his crew pay attention to every detail, even steaming tortillas before serving breakfast burritos.
By the time Flores transferred to a deployable unit, his experience allowed him to move into one of a handful of cooking jobs with his unit in Iraq.
Now on his second deployment, this time to Afghanistan, he is something of a minor celebrity in his unit. Most of the soldiers say his cooking tastes better than anything the contract kitchens make on big bases.
"We've had this chow before on training exercises, and it never tastes like Army chow [when Flores cooks it]. He makes it delicious," says Spc. Matthew King.
Spc. Bret Tillman proudly remembers how the chef brought two large boxes of his own spices when they deployed to Afghanistan.
For his part, Flores is optimistic that soldier-operated kitchens will not become a footnote in military history. With so many small outposts spread throughout the Afghan countryside, he estimates that now about 75 percent of the cooks in his unit are getting an opportunity to actually make food.
"I've known some great food service minds in the military," he says. The future of army food services is in great hands. There are a lot of guys out there who know what they're doing."