36th Culinary Arts Competition: event sports new name, reward for participation same
February 17, 2011
FORT LEE, Va. (Feb. 17, 2011) -- Air Force Master Sgt. Jason Gray and Coast Guard Master Chief Petty Officer Justin Reed last competed in the Culinary Arts Competition two years ago.
Both are now instructors at the Quartermaster School's Joint Culinary Center of Excellence and part of the administrative team tasked with organizing and staging this year's event that kicks off Feb. 26.
"This year's competition is going to be even bigger than last year's," said Gray of the 36th annual event. "Every year, it seems to get a little bit bigger, so I'm actually really looking forward to it."
The competition, which shed the "Army" part of its name to reflect the JCCoE's mission of training all military food service personnel, is the largest culinary competition in North America and is expected to attract more than 200 participants and hundreds of spectators. The American Culinary Federation-sanctioned event features professional training for participants and awards medals in 14 different team and individual categories, to include Installation of the Year and Armed Forces Chef of the Year.
Gray and Reed will be working behind the scenes this year, but their competitive days aren't such a distant memory that they don't invoke feelings of what it was like to prepare and compete in the event. Reed said there is no measuring stick for what it was like the first time.
"The first year I competed, there was a lot of anxiety," he said. "You didn't really know what the expectation was. All you knew was that you were going into a room full of other competitors and four judges walking around, looking over your shoulder constantly. But after I got out and waited for the final results - I think it was a silver medal I won - I felt like I earned it. I deserved it. You walk away with pride and joy that you won a silver medal. That was exciting."
Being able to compete is one thing, said Gray, but preparation for the competition is something different. "Competition is usually the arena in which to showcase the skills that you've already developed," said Gray. "Let's say there are young Soldiers out there working the dining facilities; they have honed and kind of fine-tuned their skills and now the competition allows them the opportunity to bring that skill to light in a competition against their peers. Practice is not just a few days; it literally takes months to develop the skills, timing, menus, etc."
During the course of the competition, it isn't unusual for participants to endure 10- to 14-hour days that may include fabricating rabbits or duck, refining sauces, preparing seafood, baking chocolates and completing a thousand tasks in between, said Reed.
"If you do that for 10-12 days," he said "you're not going to remember everything, but when it comes in front of you at some point in the future, you're going to remember some of what you learned at Fort Lee and you're going to utilize it."
Although the competition can be an information overload, Gray said it is also a supportive and nurturing environment.
"Not only are the participants learning from competing themselves, but they learn from their peers and other teams," he said. "They learn through the demonstrations, the classes. It is a wealth of information that comes in a 10-12 day period. It's a lot. The hope is that a lot of it will stick. And they'll take it back to their units."
For participants, the experience of competing, even if no medals are won, can be invaluable, said Reed.
"For anyone that comes here and doesn't win, you can say to them, one, Aca,!EoeIt's a starting point for a career' and two, Aca,!EoeYou can come back next year, now that you know what the expectation is."
Gray said that most competitors can't wait to come back.
"I learned from competing here, that whatever you win -- commendable, gold medal or whatever they walk away with, they walk away knowing they've learned something and they dust themselves off and leave with this spirit that they want to come back, regardless of what they won, knowing this is really something good to experience and I want more of it in the future."
The Culinary Arts Competition concludes March 11 with an awards ceremony. The U.S. Army Europe is the reigning installation champion.