By Capt. Tobias Cukale | 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office, 4th Infantry Division
FORT CARSON, Colo. — For Spc. Oscar Cardona Jr., one dream has driven him to pursue excellence in his craft: the IKA/Culinary Olympics.
“In (Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) in high school, I had a (retired) Sgt. Maj. (Rodney Rundblade) who was a career counselor; he told me about this team in the Army that competed in the (culinary) Olympics and that I should go as a cook and I went in, knowing that that’s what I wanted to do,” said Cardona, a culinary specialist with 4th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, following his recent second-place finish in the American Culinary Federation (ACF) Nationals 2021 competition, which took place Aug. 25-26, 2021, in Orlando, Florida.
Cardona earned his place at the ACF national competition in March 2020, when he competed at the Joint Culinary Training Exercise (JCTE) at Fort Lee, Virginia, which he almost missed out on.
“Originally, I wasn’t supposed to go because we had just (returned) from Kuwait, and they had already chosen the team,” Cardona said. “So, I pushed myself in order to get slotted.”
He and his team competed against teams from across all service branches, and Cardona earned gold as the Southeast Regional Student Chef of the Year.
When discussing his win at the JCTE, Cardona praised his fellow chefs and competitors’ skills.
“(The other chefs are) extremely talented, but it’s the little things that mess you up,” he added. “The reason I won was simply that they made more mistakes than I did.”
He said adaptability is one of the keys to success as a chef.
“It’s not going into the competition knowing my menu’s perfect,” he said. “Things go wrong, and you, as a chef, need to know how to fix things.”
Another key he pointed out: learning from those around you. “You can’t go in thinking that you know everything,” Cardona said.
He credited his success to his mentors and chefs, retired Sgt. 1st Class Steven Behr and Brother Luck, as well as his family and teachers — “Sometimes I learn from privates who have done this or anyone.”
His AFC competition win guaranteed him a place on the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team, the same team his JROTC instructor told him about, which will compete in Germany in 2024.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but with that in mind, I know this is something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Cardona said. “I’m going to put my heart and soul into it.”