From fine dining to field work: Air Force cooks run the gamut of catering challenges

IN THIS SECOND PART of our report on Defence Force catering, we turn our attention to the Air Force. As Cook Mustering Capability Advisor for the RAAF, Warrant Officer Bradley Parmenter bears ultimate responsibility for managing cook workforce sustainability, encompassing four key areas: professional and technical mastery, training and assessment, structural issues and pay/skill grade progression. In this interview Brad offers some insights into the working life of Air Force cooks and the RAAF’s commitment to ensuring their ongoing professional development.

Brad joined the RAAF 33 years ago, in November 1985. “I just loved cooking and I still have a passion for it today,” he affirms. “I actually did a catering course before I joined, then I applied for the Air Force and got accepted and the rest is history.” He was initially attracted to a career in the Air Force for the travel opportunities it provided – “I suppose I enjoy teamwork, and that plays an important role in the services.”

His postings included RAAF bases in Darwin, Amberley, Townsville, Tindal in Katherine, and at HMAS Cerberus as a catering instructor before being promoted to WOFF, in which rank he was posted to RAAF base Amberley and took up the role as Senior Catering Manager, which included assisting in the production of the Air Force’s new deployable catering capability (DCC) –fully containerised field kitchens which come in two sizes.

“The DCC is housed in an expandable container which opens up and inside is all the equipment you would find in a commercial kitchen at a big hotel,” Brad explains. “It’s got grill plates, char grills, bratt pans, toasters, combitherm ovens, dishwashers – it’s even airconditioned.”

The smaller of the two DCCs is classified as an in-flight kitchen and has the capacity to produce at least 300 meals. The larger DCC is capable of producing 500 to 800 meals and has been designed to be to be deployed in the field along with supplementary equipment such as refrigerators, potable and wastewater bladders, a reticulated fat, oil and grease trap, tents to form part of the servery area and storerooms for food. “As soon as the actual footprint is set up, we can start serving food to support the exercise or field operation,” Brad says. “The DCCs are scalable depending on the numbers we need to feed – they normally sit next to an airfield so we can use them to provide all the meals to the force unit.”

At the recent month-long Talisman Sabre training exercise held just outside of Rockhampton, Qld, three DCCs were set up side by side as in peak periods up to 3300 meals per day were being produced. This included some 98 special meal requirements – “everything you could think of along with some special meals that we didn’t know about until we arrived,” Brad tells us. “These requirements were changing daily, so our chefs had to be flexible, intuitive, creative and agile. We ended up averaging 50-70 special meals daily and the results were excellent for everyone involved.”

While the DCCs are designed as a similar workspace to what chefs are already accustomed to, RAAF cooks are required to undertake a nine day course to teach them how to deploy and redeploy the kitchen layout in the field. In addition to their work in the field supporting exercises and operations, Air Force chefs are required to plan and prepare food in diverse areas ranging from well-equipped air base facilities to galleys aboard aircraft.

“We have 161 Air Force cooks based at three locations - RAAF Bases Amberley, Darwin and Tindal,” Brad explains. “In addition to supporting major exercises like Talisman Sabre and Pitch Black, we also support mobile communications units for anywhere up to two or three weeks, cooking for about 30 people – this can be anywhere out in the field, for example the Wide Bay training area in Queensland. We also provide support for the RAAF Combat Survival Training School in Townsville, providing meals for the students and the instructors.”

Air Force personnel are also often called upon to assist with food relief and evacuation procedures in the event of natural disasters such as cyclones and tsunamis in the Asia Pacific region - hence one of the DCCs has been positioned in Darwin to be on hand if needed for such activity, while in the meantime it is also used for training purposes.

Even on a day to day basis, there’s a lot of variety in the types of meals Air Force cooks prepare and serve. Brad says the major change over his 33 years in the force has been the increased emphasis on specialised dietary requirements. “There’s a chapter in the current Defence Catering Manual devoted solely to that subject – we cater for everything from gluten free and vegetarian to Kosher and Halal food. We provide meals over the servery and buffet, we have our fine dining and top table meals for official functions and visiting dignitaries. On 31st March every year we celebrate the Air Force’s birthday and as part of that we have a tradition of a cocktail party and an Air Force cake, which the senior officer of the base cuts along with a junior member.”

Brad’s role looking after the Air Force’s cook mustering capability includes a strong strategic focus, as he explains: “Our policy cell, which is the Joint Logistics Command at Campbell Park in Canberra, has been redeveloping the Defence Catering Manual and in there it talks about providing catering services which enable the optimal delivery of human performance across all operating areas. From a strategic perspective, my role fits within that framework.

As an example, this year some of our supervisors undertook a nutritional course with the Australian Institute of Fitness that looked at nutrition, which is an area that we’ve become more focused on over the past few decades right across the defence forces. There’s a greater awareness of the importance of nutrition within society and that’s mirrored within the forces. It’s all about making sure we’re able to fuel our members out in the field to ensure they’re able to perform at their peak.
— Brad Parmenter

Another major emphasis for Brad is the ongoing professional development of Air Force cooks. “Over the last two years we’ve been participating in cooking competitions and in this year’s Cooking for the Masses competition, Team Air Force took out the national title. It was a great experience for our team because it’s all about showcasing innovation – it tests you against your peers and it hones your skills further, and then you can bring those skills back into the workplace. It was a great demonstration of the mutual respect between the different branches of the services and our business partners – it wasn’t just a competition between Army, Navy and Air Force but also Compass and Broadspectrum.” 

Brad is keen to encourage people thinking of becoming chefs to consider the RAAF as a career option. “It’s a secure job, provides travel opportunities and a diverse range of activities, and three and a half years after you join up you’ll have earnt a certificate 3 in commercial cookery. It’s a great way to learn about time management, leadership and teamwork – and that last one is the most important part. There’s an old saying among Air Force chefs that you get trade tested three times a day and you’re only as good as your last meal. That keeps us on our toes.”