VIDEO: Armed Forces Chef of the Year Frida Karani Shares Her Recipe For Success

By  //  April 4, 2016

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Armed Forces Chef of the Year 2016U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Frida Karani, the personal chef for the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, earned the title of Armed Forces Chef of the Year 2016. Read the feature story at http://go.usa.gov/csMAT

Posted by U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) on Sunday, April 3, 2016

ABOVE VIDEO: Petty Officer 1st Class Frida Karani, a Navy culinary specialist and 2016’s Armed Forces Chef of the Year, has a secret: she doesn’t like a kitchen that’s too peaceful.

Petty Officer 1st Class Frida Karani, a Navy culinary specialist and 2016’s Armed Forces Chef of the Year, has a secret: she doesn’t like a kitchen that’s too peaceful.

The enlisted aide to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff earned her title March 18 at Fort Lee, Virginia. She admitted she was initially rattled by the competition’s challenge to prepare gourmet courses without prior knowledge of the required ingredients, but said training and adrenaline ultimately paid off.

“With cooking, you need to be multitasking. … A peaceful kitchen makes me nervous, but there’s a calmness of the chef that knows what’s going on,” the Kenya native said.

“The last minute of cooking is what counts — you can prepare, but [when] you’re about to serve, that’s when the adrenaline kicks in.”

For Karani and the other 21 hopefuls from across the services who had four nerve-wracking hours to bring their mystery-basket components from conception to presentation, a fair amount of work led up to smelling sauces, checking meat temperature and assessing vegetable tenderness, she said.

U.S. and international military teams trained together for up to a year in preparation for the event, which promotes culinary excellence with a focus on ability, practicality, nutrition, workmanship, economy, presentation, creativity and concept.

The competition recognizes individual and team efforts through certificates, medals, trophies and continuing education credit that may be used toward credentialing.

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Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Frida Karani, 2016 Armed Forces Chef of the Year and personal chef for the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, poses with her tools of the trade near the vice chairman’s residence at Fort Myer, Virginia on March 24. (DoD Image by Marvin Lynchard)

A Taste of Home

Growing up in the coastal Kenyan region of Mombasa with her grandmother and parents helped to inspire the unique and creative dishes she serves to the vice chairman, other service members and dignitaries for various events, Karani said.

Though her grandmother saw cooking as a step toward marriage for a young woman, she added, she set her sights instead on a culinary career through the skills she developed at home and later in formal education, restaurants and an internship.

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She arrived to the United States as an exchange student in a hospitality program in Orlando, Florida, before visiting the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school there. A year later, she graduated summa cum laude with an associate’s degree. During her ensuing internship, she met a Navy recruiter, she recounted. “I wanted to travel, experience different things, and serve the country so I decided to join the military,” she said.

Life of the Enlisted Aide

Cooking, Karani noted, is just one aspect of an enlisted aide’s myriad duties, which can include organizing uniforms, running errands, and seeing to the details of meetings and events.

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Frida Karani, 2016 Armed Forces Chef of the Year and personal chef for the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, works on her culinary presentation techniques as she creates a lemon meringue tart dessert at the vice chairman’s Fort Myer, Virginia, residence, March 24, 2016. (DoD Image by Marvin Lynchard)

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Frida Karani, 2016 Armed Forces Chef of the Year and personal chef for the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, works on her culinary presentation techniques as she creates a lemon meringue tart dessert at the vice chairman’s Fort Myer, Virginia, residence, March 24, 2016. (DoD Image by Marvin Lynchard)

But meal preparation, she acknowledged, is perhaps the most visible, memorable task and display of diplomacy for enlisted aides.

Karani explained that she and her team work with guests’ protocol staffs to ascertain personal food preferences, allergies and dietary requirements as they develop inventive menu ideas together. “We do lot of Hawaiian dishes, a little bit of Caribbean here and there, so that way, we have a little of ourselves, our personalities, in the meals that we serve to whoever is sitting down.”

Reactions Provide Motivation

And just beyond her pride in the finished product, Karani said, she takes even greater pleasure in seeing the reactions.

“Them getting that satisfaction of you having put all that you have in that meal for them, that’s what really drives me,” she said. “I like to visualize how I think my plate would look, … so I try to work with ingredients that give a different color, different texture, different shape on my plate.”

Karani said she sought to challenge herself in the Chef of the Year competition, and she described the acclaim for her culinary artistry as “humbling.”

“I know I’ve had such a long journey in my culinary world, and I still have I think I have a long way to go,” she said.

“When I heard I’d actually won, it assured me I’m on the right path [and] solidified my strong belief in myself and the students I was training.”

The winning effort? A multicourse meal featuring seared red snapper, oysters and gnocchi. “Somehow, the judges loved it,” she said with a smile.


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