British 'flying chefs' set to cook up a storm for hungry GIs

CHRISTOPHER BELLAMY

Tuzla

They are the flying chefs. They all have a British military background, mostly from the Army Catering Corps, and some from the Navy or RAF, and many have worked in five-star hotel restaurants. They boldly go where no other chef will go - into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1991, Somalia, and now to the US sector in Bosnia.

The US army has arrived here with a panoply of military hardware. Its equipment and demeanour are impressive, and the locals respect both its power and the soldiers' politeness. But back at base, US logistics are a shambles. More than a month after they set foot in Bosnia, the yanks are still eating Meals Ready to Eat, which require no cooking. These combat rations will keep troops going in battle but are not particularly nutritious over a long period and certainly do nothing for morale.

So the US army has contracted with the firm Brown and Root to sort out the army's supply problems, and that company in turn has sub-contracted the catering work to three firms which employ the flying chefs. In all, around 60 British staff have been flown in to Bosnia.

As the British army knows so well, on a tour of several months - or in the Americans' case, a year - with long periods of boredom punctuated by brief periods of terror, top-class food is central to maintaining morale and efficiency. A US officer attached to the British base, five hours' drive away, at Gornji Vakuf, could not contain his first impression of the Brits. "The food's so good," he said, tucking into a second designer pudding which would not have shamed the Roux brothers.

The kitchens at the base of Task Force Eagle at Tuzla air base, on the other hand, had been overrun by rats. Cats - the natural solution - are not in evidence: indeed, after the near-siege of Tuzla in 1993-94, very few cats and dogs are to be seen here. On the British base at Gornji, however, a perceptive advance party of feral cats are re-establishing a presence.

The flying chefs will get the kitchens at Tuzla and the other kitchens in the area organised, hygienic, and producing hot, fresh food for 20,000 troops three times a day - a formidable task.

The sub-contractors are also taking care of the American laundry. Last week 140 washing machines had been installed at one base, and the contractors reckoned they could do 18 loads a day. That, too, will help keep the US- led Multinational Division (North) happy.

Last week the flying chefs were raring to go, but there were delays - as there are in every military operation - and, in the meantime, they were billeted at the biggest hotel in Tuzla. "We've recruited the [local] staff. We've got them medicalled - everything. They want to work because they haven't worked for so long. They want to learn," said one chef, a former sergeant major. "Meanwhile, we just wait for the go."

The flying chefs' expertise extends beyond cooking; they can also undertake security work as they are all trained soldiers.

As part of the US operation, the flying chefs were also subject to US Field Order Number One, forbidding consumption of alcohol or gambling anywhere "in theatre". As many chefs had worked in the Gulf during the war there, this was not a problem. But it seemed unjust, as the Americans had not yet given them the green light.

In the hotel, we had all taken to bringing our own builders' tea bags down to breakfast, as the tea provided was a perfumed herbal concoction with half the sugar production of the Caribbean already dissolved in it. We asked for some milk. Eventually, they brought it. Hot, reconstituted powdered milk. "And they don't even know how to do that properly," said the ex-sergeant major.

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