In the Crimean war, 150 years ago, the catering was so bad it killed more British soldiers than the enemy did. Casualties of malnutrition and related diseases were dispatched to Florence Nightingale, who did her best to help them. But the person who most improved the situation was Alexis Soyer, a French-born celebrity chef who had made his reputation in the kitchens of London’s Reform Club.
Soyer had previously demonstrated his genius for mass catering by feeding 5,000 people at a single sitting in Ireland during the potato famine. Sent to Crimea by a government rattled by newspaper dispatches describing the soldiers’ grim conditions, Soyer overhauled the army’s creaking logistical machine, putting an end to the delivery of rotten food from too far away. He also introduced a cooking device of his own invention, a type of portable stove that enabled men to cook for themselves in trenches, rather than risk their lives by crawling outside in search of a kitchen. Soyer boilers remained in use until the first Gulf war.
According to Soyer’s biographer, Ruth Cowen, whose book on the forgotten wizard will be published next year by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, “He laid the foundations of the Army Catering Corps.”
An invaluable contribution because, as Napoleon Bonaparte put it, an army marches on its stomach. And that hasn’t changed. Until somebody devises robots capable of replacing humans in battle, armies will continue to need feeding – an unvarying circumstance that rarely wins the same attention as, say, a short-term scarcity of boots or the sudden abundance of too-heavy tanks.
Army chefs have not always enjoyed great prestige. The following passage, from Anthony Powell’s novel The Soldier’s Art, gives some measure of the contempt in which fellow soldiers have held them. It takes place in a second world war mess:
’Spuds uneatable again,’ said Biggs, a notably fastidious junior officer. ‘Like bloody golf balls. They haven’t been done long enough. Here, waiter, tell the chef, with my compliments, that he bloody well doesn’t know how to cook water.’
‘I will, sir.’
‘And he can stick these spuds up his arse.’
‘Repeat to him just what I’ve said.’
‘Where’s he to stick the spuds?’
‘Up his arse, sir.’
‘Bugger off and tell him.’
For a more upbeat account – and also more up-to-date – you might talk to Major Harry Lomas, at the Royal Logistic Corps’ Army Catering College at St Omer Barracks near Aldershot. After leaving school at 15, in the appropriately named town of Nelson, Lancashire, Lomas decided to sign up as a cook in the navy. But at the recruitment office he was told that the naval chap had gone out to lunch. A representative of the army, who had perhaps already eaten, persuaded Lomas that the best chefs worked in his own, land-based service.
So Lomas – a round-faced man whose best behaviour does not preclude a certain comic twinkling in the eyes – signed up for a career in the army instead.
By his own account he became a fairly decent chef, once cooking beef for Princess Anne and telling her, with a straight face when she asked, that the dish was called “Samol en croute” (his own surname in reverse).
In a career that included long spells in Northern Ireland, he rose through the ranks to warrant officer class one – typically responsible, like Soyer in Ireland, for feeding 5,000 people at once – then got himself a commission. Today, at St Omer, he does little cooking and a lot of management.
In the temporary absence of his commanding officer, Lomas recently showed me round the college. He wanted me to see the soldiers training, maybe sample the food. We were accompanied by Staff Sergeant Major Andy Carter, a taller, younger man with a deep tan and open expression, likewise dressed in camouflage and blue beret but additionally equipped with the polished, metal-tipped pace stick of his office. Their commanding officer will be glad to know that Lomas and Carter could hardly have put more zip into showing off their overlooked area of expertise.
Each year, some 300 recruits arrive at St Omer, directly after basic military training. In the course of their studies, they will pick up civilian qualifications, such as National Vocational Qualifications, and earn rather more than civilian counterparts. According to army figures, privates can earn twice as much as apprentice chefs; staff sergeants take home as much as £32,000, plus benefits, compared with about Pounds 24,000 for a civilian head chef; and so on. After training for two years, and taking into account perks such as free accommodation, would-be chefs can accumulate either £13,987.47 in savings (if they join the army) or debts of £2,581.14 (at a college for civilians).
Another possible bonus is this: unlike their civilian counterparts, army chefs always do a bit of everything. They’re not permanently assigned to, say, making pastry.
The course begins with essentials: butchery, bulk cooking, nutrition, managing rations, planning formal dinners, health and hygiene, fire safety and basic first aid. This lasts 12 weeks, and takes place in kitchens inside an ugly 1960s tower block. Recruits who already have civilian catering qualifications, however, are “fast-tracked” beyond this preliminary to the final weeks of training, in which they learn field catering.
This is a discipline they’re unlikely to have come across before but which is highly important because, odd though it may seem, chefs are among the first military personnel sent to war zones. They often arrive without catering equipment or fuel, and if they didn’t know how to improvise there would be no food for the soldiers who follow.
The need for improvisation was made clear in the Falklands conflict, in which the ship containing catering equipment, Atlantic Conveyor, was sunk. Since then, soldier-chefs have been trained to knock up kitchens using junk, on an area of scrubland within sight of the tower block. Lomas and Carter take me to inspect various prototypes. A water tank laid over an open fire, for instance, becomes a “lazy man’s boiler”; a “mobile barbecue” can be constructed out of metal mesh laid over, say, a wrecked wheelbarrow. You could improvise a hotplate by laying sheet metal over a fire in a pit; or an oven, along similar lines, comprising a drainpipe and an old metal bin. “Wherever we go in the world,” Carter explains, “dustbins are always readily available.”
This has been proved again and again: in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone – and by Carter himself, last year, when he was sent to Iraq to set up catering operations from scratch. (He started by putting army chefs into the kitchens of Kuwaiti contractors and, as the British brigades prepared to cross the border, contrived to serve 18,000 men out of a single mess tent.)
After graduating, St Omer trainees are dispersed among the 470-plus units of the British army worldwide, where they usually share barracks with soldiers who are not chefs.
This, along with the ongoing military training, keeps their minds focused on the fact that they are not only chefs but also soldiers. Just as well, since they may at any time find themselves in the next Iraq, potentially targets for a disgruntled native population. The squad cooking on improvised equipment today, and thus nearing the end of training, has recently been assigned to units, but several individuals are uncertain which regiment is taking them. Private Artwell Mthembu, from South Africa, says he’s being posted to Northern Ireland, to the “first battalion of something”.
This imprecision does not overwhelmingly impress Lomas. “It’s very important that you find out as much as you can about your new units. Get on the internet at night and have a look.”
To a civilian brought up on the harsh routine of war films, Lomas’s avuncular tone strikes an unfamiliar note. Likewise, it must be said that discipline at St Omer, though by no means bad, does not match the crisp formality traditionally depicted on screen.
“Discipline is one thing that worries potential recruits,” Carter acknowledges when I raise this. “We are in a changing society. Twenty years ago, people were used to doing what they were told. You wouldn’t have given it a second thought before shouting at someone. Common decency is a big thing, now. We do treat people well, and we’re keen to give them transferable skills. And we do a lot of social work out of hours. We’re constrained, like any employer, to observe human rights. People aren’t so disciplined, but then we are maybe getting a better trained soldier instead.”
Despite these concessions to contemporary mores, one senses that the Royal Logistic Corp, no less than harder corps, has difficulty attracting British youth. According to Lomas, recruits from the former colonies – allowed into the British army as members of the Commonwealth and between them accounting for about 40 per cent of the intake – are generally more mature than their British counterparts.
“They see this as a real, professional job,” he explains. “And they leave the British standing. They’re hungry for it.”
Earlier on in the tower block, I witnessed a Jamaican, Private Jermain Brooks, 22, demonstrate the maturity to which Lomas alludes by calling out answers to questions posed by his teacher in a colloquium on steak and chips. (Pouring lemon juice into a bowl, Sergeant Tony McCawley asked what this sharp ingredient was for. “Breaks down the fat, sir!” yelled Brooks.)
But minor cultural differences do occasionally arise. Private Marcia Nesbeth, also from Jamaica, is today serving as squad leader in one of the tents practising field catering. When Lomas asks what’s for lunch – we’re getting hungry – Nesbeth stands to attention behind a piece of equipment labelled “Hot Surface” and states: “We have roast lamb – roast beef, sorry – and stir- fried pork. Vegetables will include mashed potatoes, broccoli and sweden (sic).”
Then there’s Yorkshire pudding.
“Is that for sweet?” asks Lomas. “Or to go with the beef?”
Nesbeth looks briefly confused, then confirms brightly that Yorkshire pudding, despite its misleading name, shall be dished up with the main course.
“Last time they served it afterwards, with jam and custard,” Lomas confides.
Every day, at every meal, army chefs perform miracles with ingredients that cost no more than £1.87 per person. (This rises to nearer £3 on operations.) Even at that low price, what they serve principally consists of fresh produce, the rest either canned or dried.
“We ensure that there is a good range of dietary intake,” affirms Lomas, suddenly all pastoral seriousness. “We do vegetarian choices, and Hindu and halal and kosher.” When abroad, he adds, army chefs cook in the local style. “Guys who get posted to Germany will have bratwurst – ‘bratty and chips’. And, in Cyprus, kebabs.”
Nothing healthier? “Well, you could put on a healthy meal with a wholemeal broccoli quiche, but that would sit on the counter untouched.”
On a hunch, Lomas halts a nearby squad, tells them to stand at ease and asks: “Has anybody here eaten wholemeal broccoli quiche?” Nobody has. “Well you should try it. One of the things you must do as chefs is to know what the customers want to eat.”
After a few more questions, he dismisses them and follows Carter to the back of a nearby tent, where they find a 10-man pack of rations and pull out its contents. These include a hefty bag of dried egg and a great deal of canned produce. Presenting one tin, which bears no printed label, Lomas says: “This is beans. It could be Heinz beans, but it won’t be, because Heinz is top of the market. It’s more likely to be Asda or Tesco.”
Picking up another, this one containing peas, he explains that the army will not accept inferior products: “If the food supply contractor can’t get Hartley’s peas, they must always go up-market, not down – and for the same price.”
“Every chef works to a high standard,” says Carter, moving into the inspirational tones of Henry V at Agincourt while still holding an unlabelled can of cheese. “But a good chef will also be adaptable. There are times when rations don’t turn up till an hour before you need them. Sometimes the weather has got to them…
“Within this box, you might get a sponge pudding or rice pudding. After a while, eating that can become tedious. So you would maybe take the powdered egg and the chocolate bars and make a souffle. Food is about morale: for soldiers on operations it’s like receiving mail from relatives, or knowing when you get to go home. If the food’s not great, morale shoots down.”
Forget Wilfred Owen’s poetry and Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”: listening to Carter one sees that the greatest war art is created, using the grimmest material, by army chefs. “I’ve even seen these” – Carter picks up a bag of cheap boiled sweets – “being heated up to make a fruit sauce. You have to keep them impressed. And you have to do it every mealtime.”
In the event, the food cooked on improvised equipment in the open air today really does taste better than the stuff prepared by another squad, on proper equipment under canvas. Obviously, this has mostly to do with the skill of individual chefs – but it does show what even beginners can do.
And the Army Catering College is not only for beginners. Throughout their careers, chefs return for supplementary training. I get a glimpse of this during an afternoon lesson in the tower block, where a group of corporals – recently returned from service overseas – are shown by Sergeant Rob Irvine how to create “teatime treats”: eclairs, iced buns and cream-filled biscuit sandwiches.
More than ever before, as I watch crop-haired men with tattoos on their necks and shoulders wrestle with piping bags and fluttering icing sugar, I’m conscious that the goings-on at St Omer are hardly less camp than the BBC sitcom, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. This quality reaches its apotheosis in the “cake room”, a museum of the most elaborate confectionery created over recent years.
Not for nothing does Lomas confide at one point: “I don’t like showing that room, because we’re not in the business of making cakes.”
But even cakes have their purpose, and there’s something infectious about patissier Irvine’s enthusiasm. This is a soldier who regularly takes part in competitions against chefs from around the world, and not just army chefs.
Nor is his own speciality as inappropriate to the needs of a fighting force as might at first appear. Assessed against Napoleon’s strict formula, teatime treats are arguably just as important as Soyer’s boilers. Serving them up in the theatre of war is not a priority but the effect on morale can be incalculable. “When you’re out in the field and you’ve got a brew on, and you bring out a tray of treats like this – then you’re a hero.”
if you have read this far, you may also enjoy this 2018 account of army catering, including some excellent photographs, such as this one of a soldier making pastry.