Serving up Smiles, 908th FSS Competes for John L. Hennessy Award

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- There was an eerie silence as the sun continued to lift above the horizon. Temperatures were still brisk as they awaited the arrival of their pallet from the sky. This remote location was an all too familiar site for U. S. Air Force Airmen belonging to Force Support Squadrons. A tent city needing a combat kitchen to feed members assigned to that location.

Instead of a tent city at a deployed in location, the 908th Airlift Wing’s Force Support Squadron was at the Blue Thunder training area on Maxwell Air Force Base Feb. 11, to once again compete in the Hennessy Competition.

Each year, the Air Force presents the John L. Hennessy Award to recognize the team who best excels in food service.

After a second place finish in the team portion of last year’s competition, the 908th was hungry for the win this year.

“Honestly I don’t feel that much pressure,” said Staff Sgt. Octavius Ausbon, who won the individual Outstanding Performer award last year. “We do this as a team and we have a great team at that. Coming in second last year just gives us more motivation this year. We have a great set up and we are way better time wise than we were.”

According to Chief Master Sgt. Dan Kelly, Air Force Reserve Command functional manager, one of three judges for the competition, the 908th is the first of four teams vying for the title this year.

“The other three teams to be judged between now and April are: the 512th Airlift Wing at Dover Air Force Base, Del.; the 419th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah; and the 934th Airlift Wing at Minneapolis-St. Paul Air Reserve Station, Minn.,” explained Kelly. “The 908th should be proud, they are already in the top four out of 39 other eligible units.”

Winning the Hennessy Competition isn’t just about bragging rights to hold over other units, there are real world implications to being the best of the best.

“These guys get training with chefs,” said Kelly. “They get to go to the food show in Chicago, and they can spend a week in Napa Valley, Calif., training and learning from the best of the best.”

With so much on the line, the judges have to be extremely skilled and knowledgeable to be able to distinguish the best from the rest.

That’s where the other two members of the judging team come in, Senior Master Sgt. Shakela McNeill, and Executive Chef David Richmond, member of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.

McNeill, who is now in charge of readiness at the AFRC level, just left the school house after being an instructor for six years is in a perfect position to be one of the judges for the competition according to Kelly.

“I think my experiences make it easier for me to be able to judge the competition,” said McNeill. “I know what the standard is because I remember teaching them the standards. I know what to look for because I see this stuff in my sleep.”

Every team competing knows what those standards are as well, so something else has to become evident to stand out as the best.

“They have to think outside of the box,” explained McNeill. “I know it’s a food competition and while that is the biggest factor, it’s not all about the food.”

Thinking outside of the box is exactly what the team has done this year.

“We feel better about this year,” said Tech. Sgt. Sannu Cummings-Brooks, food team lead for the 908th’s team. “We have made some additions that should give us an edge. We have extra décor and we have improved on our time. Right now we are on time and on schedule.”

Time management can be a vital aspect to the competition, and if the 908th’s time management is any indication of where they stand overall, then things are looking good for the team.

“The standard amount of time to set up the kitchen is supposed to be an hour and a half,” said McNeill. “They did it in less than 45 minutes.”

Witnessing the 908th was Richmond’s first experience in seeing the Hennessy Competition, let alone judging it.

“It’s absolutely amazing to see a small pallet transformed into a kitchen that can produce a hot meal,” exclaimed Richmond. “To see a group of individuals that are passionate about what they do and that are trained to be leaders and trained to put out a product in a timely manner is great.”

Even with a strong feeling of awe, Richmond knows what he is looking for as far as judging is concerned.

“They have to put out an amazing product,” explained Richmond. “I’m looking for organization, passion, people who know when to step up and be leaders while also knowing when to step back and be a team player following someone else’s lead. The winning team needs to have a hot, safe, and clean product.”

According to Richmond, the 908th did just that.

“They fed people in a safe way,” said Richmond. “They were organized, clean, and followed all the right rules and regulations.”

Just like McNeill, Richmond knows that it isn’t just about the food.

“They have to be hospitable,” said Richmond. “They have to remember that the customer is king.”

Once again, it seems the 908th has met that expectation and set the bar pretty high for other teams to follow.

“I saw a drive to serve,” proclaimed Richmond. “Every member of the team was engaged, genuine, and going the extra mile.”