FORT LEE, Va. (March 20, 2014) -- For those in the military food service profession, few retirement gifts can rival that of a shiny piece of hardware with an inscription that partly reads "Installation of the Year."

Sgt. Maj. David Turcotte said he couldn't ask for a better send-off.

He is the lead noncommissioned officer for the Fort Stewart, Ga., culinary team. The former schoolhouse instructor began the process of retirement upon his return to Fort Stewart last week, but not before helping his team win its second installation of the year trophy in three years at the Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event.

The announcement was made during the finale of a March 14 awards ceremony held at the Lee Theater, capping a weeklong competition that featured 234 competitors from five branches of the service and 465 competitive entries.

Other winners included Navy SCPO Derrick Davenport, master chef of the year; Army Sgt. Sarah Deckert, military chef of the year; Pvt. Rachelle Columbino, military student chef of the year, U.S. Army Europe; and Sgt. 1st Class Dwight Copeland, enlisted aide of the year.

Team Hawaii, a joint service contingent, finished second to Fort Stewart in the installation category.

Turcotte, winner of seven installation titles, downplayed his personal achievement and instead emphasized the benefit to team members and food service operations.

"The skills they learned while they were here directly affect the food that's eaten in the dining facilities every day," he said. "So, it's important that these guys get this knowledge, bring it forward and help to train others with the experience they've gained."

The 39th edition of MCACTE, shortened to a week due to budget constraints, excluded some events and placed limitations on others. Nevertheless, the Post Field House event still held firm to its longstanding tradition of training participants in a competitive, nurturing environment, said Brig. Gen. John E. O'Neil IV, MCACTE host and Quartermaster School commander.

"What sticks with me the most is the increased number of new younger competitors who did exceptionally well, winning silver and gold medals," he said. "I think that's come about through NCO leadership and training to get them to this point."

The Fort Stewart team, with several young first-timers, captured the student skills and field cooking events, helping it to cement the installation win. Team member Pfc. Ferney Perlaza assisted in both events as well as the senior chef of the year contest. He said from a training perspective, the MCACTE went way beyond his expectations.

"We learned so much," he said. "In general, it was a very different experience."

Turcotte and Staff Sgt. Dianna Royal topped off Fort Stewart's showing with a first place in the nutritional hot food challenge.

The award presentations held at the dimly-lit Lee Theater, nearly filled to capacity with uniformed participants, supporters and family members, provided the audience with a number of memorable highlights. There were the sometimes comedic vocal expressions as contestants' names were announced for awards and shouts of the Army motivational cry, "hooah," on numerous occasions.

Most remarkable was O'Neil and Command Sgt. Maj. Spencer L. Gray, QM Corps regimental CSM, leading the Stewart team in singing "The Dog Face Soldier" after the installation of the year announcement. "Dog" is the official song of Stewart's 3rd Infantry Division. O'Neil and Gray are former members of that organization.

Standing ovations were few at the event. Spc. Jamie Nakamoto of the Fort Hood (Texas) team was honored with two after winning the best exhibit in show title with a perfect score of 40 and the judge's special award honor for the cold food table event. Beaming with a toothy smile while walking toward the stage to accept her award, she was still exuberant after the ceremony yet short on words.

"I worked about two months to get it done," she said of her exhibit pieces. "I worked very hard."

Hard work and NCO influence might also explain the phenomenon of Columbino. The 19-year-old, who graduated from the food service specialist course in December, had worked in a DFAC for only two months prior to the competition and has no prior cooking or culinary experience. She said a tough, concentrated training program and the right instructional approach made the difference.

"My sergeant trained us for about two weeks, and I just followed what he told me," she said with a modest grin.

Columbino and her teammates were trained by Sgt. 1st Class Steven Behr, a former schoolhouse instructor. He arrived at USAEUR a mere two weeks prior MCACTE, implementing a training program that emphasizes mise en place or organizing and arranging all the ingredients prior to the meal, said Columbino.

"He said that if you have everything you need, then you'll be successful," she recalled. "You will be able to prepare the food in time."

Columbino said she had one hour to prepare two plates for the judges. She finished within the time limit and earned one of only 20 gold medals out of 258 medals awarded during the event.

In addition to the awards presentations, 10 were named to the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team, which held tryouts during the competitive training event. It typically competes in the Culinary Olympics.