As she walks into the kitchen, she surveys the items she must create into a meal: two milk fish, a handful of cherry tomatoes, fennel, asparagus and risotto with herbs.
After figuring out her menu, she gathers the extra staple items she needs from the pantry to complement her cuisine, which she must prepare and present within the allotted time – an hour and a half.
As the sound of metal clinking and asparagus sizzling fills the air, she begins to create her dish, filleting the fish just right, slicing vegetables and tasting her spread to make sure the combination of spices and herbs fuse together.
What may sound like an everyday meal selection for dinner was actually the beginning of a cut-throat cooking competition between services Airmen vying for the title of U.S. Air Forces in Europe Top Chef.
One Ramstein food services journeyman found the challenge of the competition to be all part of the joy of cooking. After all, 86th Services Squadron Senior Airman Sheryl Stewart was already a winner, and she just plain loves to cook.
Airman Stewart was named Ramstein’s Top Chief during the base-level competition
June 17 and competed alongside eight other USAFE Airmen for the major command title July 31.
Although Airman Stewart has a love for cooking now, this was not always the case.
Born in Honduras and raised in New Orleans, Airman Stewart said her mother taught her to cook at the age of 10, but she didn’t really like to cook.
It wasn’t until technical school at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, that Airman Stewart recognized how much she enjoyed cooking.
“I didn’t realize I had a passion for cooking until I went to technical school,” she said. “I realized cooking was a lot more fun than I thought. That’s when I figured out, ‘hey, I really like this.’”
Airman Stewart then decided she wanted to attend culinary school. At Beale Air Force Base, Calif., her first duty station, she got her chance.
She found the closest culinary school, which was an hour away from the base, and called the school to begin the application process. After eight and a half months of schooling at the Institute of Technology: Culinary Arts Campus in Roseville, Calif., she became a culinary arts specialist.
“I was working full time, cooking during the day, and then going to school at night,” she said.
While in culinary school, Airman Stewart said she learned the inner secrets of the kitchen.
“You learn to cook any kind of meat or seafood you could imagine,” she said. “You learn to cut it, cook it and you have to try it. You have to try everything you make.”
This was a little difficult for Airman Stewart at first.
“I stopped eating beef in 2006, so it was a little hard for me to taste the beef, but I did,” she said. “You have to learn how to cook, and part of that is tasting what you create.”
Airman Stewart said she learned how to make food elegant and tasty while in culinary school, something she’s tried to incorporate while working in the military dining facilities.
“Culinary school is more wining and dining than it is in the military as we have to cook in bulk,” she said. “So what I took away from school, besides the techniques, was the fanciness of cooking, how to make big piles of chili macaroni so scrumptious it just melts in your mouth.”
During her seven and a half years in the military, Airman Stewart said her best memory so far has been the people she has worked with.
“I’ve met a lot of really great people,” she said. “I love having fun in the kitchen, so I always find ways to have fun. You meet really good people, who really like to cook. Even if people don’t like to cook, I try to get them to like it at least, to have fun with it.”
One person Airman Stewart met in the kitchen, a former co-worker from Beale, also competed in the USAFE Top Chef competition.
“She could cook from the start. You could tell she loved cooking and had a passion for it,” said Staff Sgt. Kiana Mobley, 48th Force Support Squadron non-commissioned officer in charge of services command staff at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, United Kingdom. “She taught me plenty of things about cooking while at Beale. She’s one of those people who’s really great to work with.”
Airman Stewart said she is always cooking whether it’s at work or at home for family and friends. Her favorite food to cook – chicken.
“Anything with chicken is definitely something I love to cook,” she said. “Chicken is definitely something I can cook really easily with. You can add anything to it.”
As for her favorite past time, she loves to watch cooking shows.
“I watched cooking shows religiously in the United States. I watched all of it, but my favorite is Bobby Flay,” she said. “I like him. He sticks to Southwestern food, but he also teaches you other things besides that. So, personally for me it’s Bobby Flay – he’s awesome.”
Even though Airman Stewart did not win the USAFE Top Chef competition, she did place in the top four and is counted among the best in her career field in USAFE.
The military cook said she hopes to one day work in a restaurant as a chef, and cooking is something she will always do.
“I think cooking is the best thing ever,” she said. “It’s definitely a stress reliever for me. My comfort is in the kitchen; I think everyone should try it.”