Face of Defense: Soldier Excels in Student Chef Competition

With extreme focus, the soldier wiped the plate with a towel, then looked up and said, “I’m done.”

Army Pfc. Olena Konotop, a culinary arts specialist based at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, had just finished cooking for the student chef of the year event at the 43rd Annual Joint Culinary Training Exercise here.

“My mother believed every girl needed to know how to cook,” said Konotop, who has been in the Army for 18 months. “There is creativity in food and it brings cultures and people together.”

Konotop, who has worked in the Resolute Dining Facility at Fort Eustis for almost a year, emigrated from Kherson, Ukraine, to Arizona when she was 12 years old.

“My mother married my [American] stepdad, and he brought us to America,” she said. “I spoke no English.”

Konotop said she was inspired by American culture.

“The mentality of Americans is such that if you work hard you can be anything you want,” said the 21-year-old Konotop. “In the Ukraine, only those with money get the privileges.”

Strong Work Ethic

Konotop strongly believes that she can achieve anything by working hard and putting her mind to the task, which her supervisors say is reflected in her work for the JCTE and at her home station.

“[Konotop] has really evolved since she started training five weeks ago [for JCTE],” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Shanta Martin, JBLE team manager and Resolute DFAC noncommissioned officer in charge. “She has picked up so much, taken critiques and really turned it around.” 

Competing for her first time in the JCTE, Konotop said she joined the Army because in the Ukraine women don’t join the military.

“We are viewed as being girly and weak,” she said. “I wanted to show I could be girly and strong, and prove people wrong. My family was worried but they have been very supportive.”

“Pfc. Konotop is a great soldier who takes initiative and is a go-getter,” Martin said. “She takes pride in her work and strives to get it right.”

The JCTE student chef event showcases the talents of military chefs with less than two years in service. The annual exercise, administered by the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence at Fort Lee, is the largest American Culinary Federation-sanctioned competition in North America, showcasing the talent of more than 235 military chefs from around the globe in all branches of the U.S. armed forces and foreign military teams.

The JCTE teams are not competing against each other but against the culinary industry standards. Awards will be given based upon those who meet or exceed those standards.

“It is great [to be competing],” said Konotop, who received a silver medal for her chicken dish. “You have to have a passion for what you are doing; that is what it is all about.”