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South Jamaica Marine dishes it in cooking competition

U.S. Marine Sgt. Andrew Atkinson, the first Marine to compete on the U.S. Army’s culinary arts team, said his cooking expertise did not develop from his years of traveling and working around the world, rather it all started in the kitchen in his home on the island of Jamaica.

“My mom and grandma would cook a lot,” he recalled. “They cooked a lot of Caribbean food, fried fish and jerk chicken.”

Over the last three years, the 37-year-old armed services member, who works as the aide chef for the commanding general of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, has impressed judges from all over the world with those family recipes and then some.

Although he always had a passion for cooking, Atkinson, who moved with his family to South Jamaica when he was a teen, said his skills picked up when he enlisted with the Marines in 1992 and was assigned to food service detail.

The Marine, who currently lives in Norfolk, Va., with his wife, found his duty engaging since he got to learn new recipes and specialties from around the world.

During his years of service, Atkinson has lived in a dozen countries, including Japan, Greece, Belgium, England, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Antigua, Aruba and Mexico.

“I can do any meal. I can do some Italian, I can do some French, some Mediterranean,” he said.

Atkinson said he was grateful that the corps had funded his chef certification and allowed him to see different parts of the world. The Marine said culinary arts on the battlefield has changed significantly over the last couple of decades as the armed services have paid more attention to the needs of troops.

“The troops are getting real American food. It’s a good thing we have a good system,” he said. It’s much better than the Vietnam days, where they didn’t eat hot food for days.”

Atkinson was able to show off some of his dishes in 1996 when he competed in his first cooking competition in Washington, D.C. Although he was only awarded an honorable mention for that event, which pit different groups of Marine chefs from bases across the globe against one another, the armed services member said he had fun and wanted to do it again.

“People think we are unified as one fighting machine, but when it comes to competing in these services, we Marines pride ourselves as being the elite,” he said about the competition.

Atkinson’s work abroad kept him away from the competition circuit for more than a decade, but three years ago he started entering more competitions and winning. In some of the events, Atkinson had to cook his dishes, which included his favorite Jamaica dishes, in both traditional kitchen settings and military conditions.

“The in-field competition is like it is in the field. You have a tent and you have to cook for 85 people,” he explained.

His biggest victory came last month at the 35th Culinary Arts Competition, where he went against nearly 200 members of different armed services. With his three-course meal that included grilled lamb with sweet mashed potatoes, he was able to earn two silver medals and most importantly a spot on the U.S. Army’s culinary team.

Starting in October, Atkinson, who is the team’s first-ever Marine, will be showing off his skills against militaries from other nations, including England and Germany.

The Marine’s family, who still live in their 161st Place home, said they are proud of their son’s accomplishments. His mother, Olga, reminisced about how she cheered from the stands during his first competition.

“I stood up and he came to me and said, ‘Mom, you have to try this,’” she recalled.

Atkinson, on the other hand, shrugged off the accolades and said that as a chef he is always looking for new ways to enhance his recipe book.

“You got to know the different ways,” he said.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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