JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - "I'm not going to lie, I was nervous when I went in," said Spc. Curtis W. McFarland about his feelings before entering the I Corps Cook of the Year board.

He may have been nervous, but it did not stop him from earning the most points during the competition and gaining the title of I Corps Cook of the Year for the junior soldier category, Nov. 14.

McFarland, an Alexandria, Va., native, and food service specialist with 606th Forward Support Company, 1st Battalion, 377th Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Fires Brigade, 7th Infantry Division, was surprised he won against talented food service specialists from across JBLM.

"They had [soldiers] competing from 2nd Infantry Division and Special Forces group," he said. "I mean it was a very tough competition and it was very close in terms of scoring, everyone did extremely well."

The I Corps Cook of the Year board is similar to a soldier of the Month board. A panel of senior leaders inspected each contestant's uniform, Army physical fitness test scores, rifle marksmanship scores, and overall knowledge of basic Soldier skills, Army services and regulations.

What made the Cook of the Year board unique was that all the contenders were food service specialists. The competition tested job-specific skills and knowledge, covering everything from food preparation, kitchen safety, garrison and field kitchen regulations, and a hands-on portion where each competitor had to prepare an intricate meal.

McFarland scored highest in the question and answer portion of the competition, but not without hard work. While he had already been hitting the books to study general Army knowledge for the promotion board, he set aside time to focus on his job-specific regulations. The studying paid off when he was able to answer some of the uncommon questions that would not likely come up in his day-to-day duties at the Cannon and Castle Grill dining facility.

And it was a good thing he did study, since McFarland was outmatched in the hands-on category of the competition.

"I didn't have too much practice in terms of culinary arts, which is exactly what the judges were looking for," he said. "They were looking for classical styles, like julienne cuts ... they wanted to make sure you did it right."

The competitors were told they were going to have to prepare a dish with a classically cut piece of chicken as the centerpiece. McFarland could not slice off a piece of chicken haphazardly.

"What I made was a lemon glazed chicken. I made a glaze by juicing the lemon, added brown sugar to thicken it up, then I French cut a chicken leg ... and made Spanish rice from scratch," he said.

He used the glaze as a garnish and carrots as the vegetable.

"You're graded on presentation, taste and overall cleanliness of your area," he said.

To the untrained eye, McFarland's dish appeared to be a lavish treat you might find in a fancy restaurant. However, the expert panel of judges noted some subtle weaknesses in the presentation.

Getting the constructive criticism was just as much of a victory as winning the competition. McFarland is a big believer in food presentation, saying people usually pick the food that looks the best, regardless of which food they previously tasted.

"People eat with their eyes before they eat with their mouth, that's one of the first things we learned at [Advanced Individual Training]," he said.

McFarland is taking what he learned from the judges and practicing culinary arts at home where his wife can be the judge. But he is not just practicing for the sake of improvement.

"One of the incentives [for winning] was, I would get the chance to work at Bronson Hall, the distinguished visitor's quarters, for the [post] commanding general," he said.

McFarland is enthusiastic about future opportunities; one of his goals is to eventually serve as a warrant officer and become a food service technician. Until then, he is content to cook for his wife and work with his team at the Cannon and Castle Grill where he says he still learns from his leaders and teammates every day.