FORT LEE, Va. - The U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition just dished up the largest multi-service culinary show in the U.S., naming the U.S. Army Europe team as the Installation of the Year.

For more than three decades, the Culinary Competition has been a stage of sorts; a showcase in which contestants are afforded the opportunity to put their skills up against the best the military has to offer.

But it is also a unique military food service experience - one that has a varied impact beyond the competition itself.

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Russell Campbell is the incoming chief of the Culinary Skills Division, Joint Culinary Center of Excellence, host of the event. He said the American Culinary Federation-sanctioned CAC is one of the best means for food service personnel to learn and grow.

"We expose them to the various techniques and talents of our staff to help put the tools in their ruck sack to take with them," he said "We show them steps that will help them become a certified culinarian, certified sous chef or a certified executive chef one day."

More than 200 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen from installations all over the world converge at the event for the opportunity to load up their ruck sacks.

Participants can compete in more than 20 different categories, get one-on-one-critiques from ACF judges, attend many classes taught by professionals and tryout for the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team.

Furthermore, they can earn certifications, learn from their peers, share in the spirit of competition and soak up the camaraderie. All of that adds up to one enriching event, said Sgt. Alicia Hight, a member of the Fort Monroe Culinary Team.

"It's just thrilling," said the 10-year Soldier, who made her first CAC appearance in 2006 and who has returned almost every year since. "I can't even describe it. It's like being in the Miss America competition. You have all these people coming from all over to compete, to see who's the best ... It's just fun. It's what I live for."

The CAC experience usually starts before the competition gets underway. Many participating installations hold tryouts prior to the CAC and begin training six months out. Most of the competitors have crammed the maximum amount of training into the minimum amount of time. Spc. Karen Rennles, a Fort Lee Culinary Team member and second-time competitor, said her team put in tons of practice time several months prior to the competition.

"Just like anything else, you practice, practice, practice, until you can do it in your sleep," she said. "Whatever you practice, do twice as much, and then next year, do it twice as much as you did this year."

Competing in the CAC is like practicing all over again; only the circumstances are a tad different: The pace is rapid, and the stress is daunting. The result is something that can be likened to a compressed learning experience, said Spc. Austin O'Neil, Army Reserve Culinary Arts Team.

"I've learned more in the past four days than I probably did in the past six years," he said during his team's performance in the field competition. "There are a lot of things that you can't learn in a single job as far as cooking, but here you get to observe so much more. For example, I've never done (cake) decorations before. Now I'm doing icing; I'm doing everything."

Spc. Jeffrey Vaughan, another Army Reserve team member, has figured out that a two-week period is hardly enough time to absorb everything. His remedy: keep coming back. This is his fifth year competing.

"I learn a little something new each time I come," said the 28-year old. "I incorporate what I learn within the next year that I compete."

Vaughan is typical of the event's many 20-somethings: passionate, dedicated and willing to learn. Those qualities help to push them through the hectic days of the competition in which sleep is scarce and the pace is exhaustive. That's a small price to pay compared to all that can be gained, said Senior Airman Ghil Medina.

"It's a lot of work, but I've met a lot of great chefs out here; a lot of people who are knowledgeable about the career field, about food service, and about culinary arts," said the 22-year-old Joint Base Langley-Eustis Culinary Team member. "Whenever they're around, I ask questions, and they are willing - they are very, very willing - to teach you what they know so that you can acquire a skill from them."

That's what Campbell and the JCCoE want: military members to come, acquire skills, share those skills and provide a better service for those who defend the country. It's something that Medina can't wait to do when he returns to duty.

"This is a lifetime experience," he said. "All of the skills and knowledge I've obtained; I want to bring it back to my home base, to teach our airmen to improve and make a contribution to culinary arts."

Here are the Results: Installation of the Year goes to U.S. Army Europe, 2nd place Fort Bragg, Nc., and Team Coast Guard takes 3rd.

Winners in the other major competition categories were:
Armed Forces Chef of the Year: Staff Sgt. Joshua Spiess, Fort Monroe, Va.
Armed Forces Junior Chef of the Year: Pfc. Antoinette Davison, Team Europe
Field Cooking Competition: Team Fort Monroe, Va.
Student Team Skills Competition: Team Fort Bliss, Texas
Nutritional Hot Food Challenge: Chief Petty Officer Derrick Davenport & Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Edwards, Team U.S. Navy
Baron H. Galand Culinary Knowledge Bowl: Team Fort Bragg, N.C.
Best Ice Carving in Show: Team Puerto Rico
Army Senior Enlisted Aide of the Year: Sgt. 1st Class Sherra Jackson, Fort Myer, Fla.
Army Junior Enlisted Aide of the Year: Staff Sgt. Jose Alves, Fort Lee, Va.

Winners in Special Categories included:
Best Exhibit in Show (Cat A, Cold Platter): Sgt. Ken Turman, Team Europe
Best Exhibit in Show (Cat B, Cold Appetizers): Staff Sgt. Stevie Bronson, Team Europe
Best Exhibit in Show (Cat. C, Patisserie/Confectionery): Spc. William Pelkey, Team Europe
Best Exhibit in Show (Cat. D, Showpiece): Master Sgt. Mark Morgan, Fort Monroe, Va.
Most Artistic Exhibit in Show: Sgt. Trent Skinner, Team U.S. Army Reserve
Best Team Buffet Table (Cat E): Team Europe
Judges Special Award (Cold Food Table): Team Fort Hood, Texas
Best in Class - Contemporary Cooking (Cat K): Sgt. Billy Daugette, Team Pentagon; Sgt. Ashley Schei, Team Hawaii
Best in Class - Contemporary Pastry (Cat P): Spc. William Pelkey, Team Europe

In all, the competition included 629 competitive entries from 229 competitors, and 494 medals were awarded at the ceremony March 12, 2010.

133 gold medals, including team gold medals, were distributed.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16