Sgt. Steven Baca, left, stands next to the JBLM culinary team. Front row: Staff Sgt. Kamlyn Grisham, left, Sgt. Heather Light, and Senior Airman Nathaniel Nelson. Back row: Spc. James Bradbury, left, Sgt. Jose Pacheco, Pvt. 1st Class Terra Nassif, Sgt. 1st Class Randall Summerford (coach), Spc. Van Casis, and Pfc. Noel Willis. Not pictured: Ben Tesoro.

Anticipating an amazing meal is something that gets most people watering at the mouth. But for some at Joint Base Lewis-McChord the thrill comes from creating dishes that are better than everyone else's.

For the first time in three years, JBLM sent a team to the Annual Culinary Competition at Fort Lee, Va., from Feb. 26 to March 11. Though the team was relatively inexperienced, hopes were high that JBLM now has a group that knows what it takes to win.

"They're definitely dedicated," team coach Sgt. 1st Class Randall Summerford, 17th Fires Brigade, said.

As part of the first-ever joint base team, members were drawn from the best of the best on Lewis and McChord. The group of eight Soldiers, two Airmen and one civilian were selected around Thanksgiving last year, and started gearing up for the competition in January 2011.

The hard work prepared them for long hours in the kitchen once they reached Fort Lee.

"It was pretty intense," team manager Sgt. Stephen Baca, 62nd Medical Brigade, said.

The first day of competition brought the Senior Chef of the Year event, in which chefs are given
mystery baskets of food to work with. This year's collection of ingredients included frog legs, cat fish, purple cauliflower and a spiny, cactus-like fruit that no one quite recognized.

"People were looking at it going, 'What is this''" he said.

The odd assortment didn't stop Sgt. Heather Light, 17th Fires Bde., from earning a commendable award, though. And that was just the beginning.

Some nights they'd stay in the lab until 2 a.m., only to come back again at 7 a.m. Occasionally Baca couldn't get Senior Airman Nathaniel Nelson, 627th Force Support Squadron, to leave. As everyone else was packing up, Nelson would stay to practice his sauce one more time.

The effort got him the team's first gold medal of the competition, in the Junior Chef Event.

"This whole program has totally reinvigorated me on why I love cooking," Nelson said.

In fact, he loves it so much he joined the Air Force to do it. Working with raw ingredients to create something everyone enjoys is what he's passionate about.

"Good food can light up someone's life," he said.

Nelson also won a silver and a bronze medal.

For Pfc. Terra Nassif, 17th Fires Bde., going to Fort Lee was an experience she won't soon forget.

She left her first culinary competition with gold, silver and bronze medals.

At first she was nervous and unsure what to expect, but once she started work on the Celebration Cake competition, she knew exactly what to do.

"I just went into my own world," she said.

The white-and-blue draped stair cake, covered in flowers with a bouquet on the top, got her the top award for the event.

"I almost cried," Nassif said. "I was so happy that other people liked (what I had made)."

Though they fell short of the major awards at the 16th annual event - the top three spots went to Team Pentagon, Fort Bragg and Team Coast Guard - the relatively inexperienced JBLM team walked away with 24 medals out of 27 opportunities.

The team's final award count was 4 gold medals, six silver, 14 bronze and three commendable awards.

On March 23, about a week after the team returned from Fort Lee, they placed first at a regional culinary competition at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

While some of the members have already been selected to go work at the Pentagon, Summerford is hoping enough of the team will be able to stay and provide leadership for next year's competition.

"It's very exciting to get the team back together after a lull in the battle," he said.

Marisa Petrich:

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