France’s canned veal and deer pate look like a pricey board of charcuterie. Lithuania’s mystery meat becomes a black tea-dusted amuse bouche straight out of Brooklyn. And China. Beautiful China. Its anonymous green pouches reveal pineapple with charred sweet bread and lemon dust–what looks like a $35 dish served at a 3-star Michelin restaurant.
Each of these plates started its life as a notoriously gross MRE–“meals ready eat” supplied to soldiers across the world. Then New York chef Chuck George, who ate his dad’s MREs growing up, came along and reworked them into beautiful courses. Henry Hargreaves shot the resulting project named From MRE to Michelin, while Jimmy Pham created a video.
“We took these MREs that are ultimately pretty awful and reimagined them . . . in the most pedantic and overproduced way possible,” says Hargreaves. “It’s a fun project, putting a bit of a light on military food, which people don’t often think about, and take for granted.”
Hargreaves acquired the six meals–hailing from Russia, the U.S., China, Korea, Lithuania, and France–over months of stalking Ebay. Hargreaves admits the sales are a legal gray area, given that selling military-provided gear is often illegal. But buying the meals was just the start of the project’s challenge.
“The food was not easy to work with. The color palettes were very monochromatic. Dark browns, dark reds. There weren’t many vibrant colors. It’s not like most Michelin restaurants you go to and you’ve got flower petals and everything,” says Hargreaves. “So we really had to stretch ourselves.”
The team opened each MRE together and discussed various plating options. George took the lead arranging, smearing, and dusting the plates as any serious chef would. While the plates, complete with touches like Russia’s streaks of pork brains, are a sight to behold, the packaging is just as intriguing to see side-by-side. You can almost make out the spending habits of each military–with Lithuania packaging tea and jam that looks like it was straight off the shelf of any European bodega, Korea offering the sad equivalent of Cup Noodles, and the U.S. providing high gloss specialty foods clearly supplied by the military-industrial complex (complete with a camouflaged, First Strike chocolate flavored protein bar).
At the end of the shoot, the food actually didn’t go to waste. The team tried everything. “Honestly, speaking for myself, I thought the U.S. military and the Chinese were the worst. And the French was the best,” says Hargreaves. “It’s interesting, the French stuff actually looks like food that might be served on an airplane. I’m not saying it looks great! But I’m saying it’s a bit more contemporary and human. Considering the American one is much more my culture, it’s really unappealing stuff. The main course was a tortilla pasta paste, or something. It really was just like baby food.”
To Hargreaves, while it was funny to highlight the vast gap between MREs and Michelin cuisine, there’s a greater lesson here for all of us to absorb. “It’s kind of ironic that here are the bravest people serving our countries, but getting fed these really kind of average meals,” he says. “Now I know there’s a lot of stipulations on it, they’ve gotta last a long time, they’ve gotta be lightweight, waterproof and everything. But c’mon, there’s a lot of room for improvement here with all that.”