Early on Friday mornings, billows of smoke can be seen rising through the air moving with the wind and dancing to the sound of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
It will be hours before the dining facility opens for dinner, but those working on the Camp Albert area of Bagram can already inhale the drifting aroma of steaks meeting an open flame as the Falcon Cafe prepares for the night’s meal: Surf and Turf. As the largest of the few soldier-run dining facilities in Afghanistan, soldiers of the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force Falcon, work to provide meals to hungry coalition forces and civilians who visit the cafe.
“They expect more from us because we are soldiers,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. LaJuane Lee of Denver, food service specialist and shift leader, Headquarters and Support Company, TF Workhorse. “They expect us to be a five-star restaurant in the field. We work well with what we have and we strive to meet those expectations.”
“One of the responsibilities we have is making sure we have quality meals and healthy meals for the Soldiers,” said U.S. Army Spc. Howard Ellsworth of Medina, Ohio, a cook with HSC, TF Workhorse, from Medina, Ohio. “If one person eats something and gets sick that’s one person out of the fight, so we’re maintaining the fight by keeping Soldiers healthy.”
With Fridays as the busiest night of the week, the dining facility serves about 1,500 meals whereas on other nights the number is closer to a 1,000. In order to prepare for the large dinner rush, soldiers begin grilling steaks at 8:30 a.m. and work until 3 p.m.
We have more than 1,000 steaks that we grill,” said Ellsworth who, along with Spc. Christopher Mattingly of Rincon, another cook with HSC, TF Workhorse, spend Fridays grilling steaks. “My biggest thing with the steaks is making sure it tastes good and that it looks like it came off a grill. We marinate them the night before to make sure juices have time to soak through and tenderize the meat. Then we’re out here all day cooking them.”
Though Fridays require additional work to prepare the steaks, Fridays are not the only day where cooks work long hours. Soldiers working at the dining facility may work 12-hours or more on any given day.
“We work hard and we get up earlier than most,” said Lee. “We are on a continuous work mode because our mission is essential all the time. I can get there at 4:30 a.m. and not leave till 5 or 6 p.m. But I enjoy the food industry. I enjoy seeing the response of people eating. I enjoy preparing food, the presentation of food and seeing how different people create different meals.”
In addition to Friday’s specialty meal, the Falcon Cafe is also known for its burgers called, “Aviation Burgers,” a name reflecting the assets of TF Falcon. The burgers are handmade with cheese infused in the meat and a special secret seasoning.
“You have to really want the aviation burger to get it and apparently everyone wants it because the line for the burger wraps around the building,” said Spc. Bryce Hudgins of Burleson, Texas, HSC, TF Workhorse. “In fact, the (food service specialists) will call out, ‘who isn’t waiting for a burger?’ and if you’re not eating a burger you get to jump to the front of the line. I wait for the burger though. Every other (dining facility) only makes the frozen, pre-made burgers. But these are handmade, so it’s like eating at a diner instead of a cafeteria.”
The Falcon Cafe also provides specialty meals including other favorites such as “Mexican Monday” and “Italian Wednesdays.” With many soldiers facing monotony in their daily jobs, Warrant Officer Lawrence D. Perry of Chicago, TF Falcon’s brigade food service advisor, said he hopes the dining facility provides a variety of delicious, nutritious meals.
“Having variety is important so you don’t get redundant with the same meal over and over again,” he said. “We have so many people from all over the world and we try to provide everyone with a home cooked meal. We’re so far away from home for such a long period of time, away from our friends, families and loved ones — you need a sense of camaraderie and friendship.
“At home you can find that around a dining room table, in Afghanistan our dining facility is a place you can get it.”