MANNHEIM, Germany -- The enticing aroma of sizzling filet mignon and apple crAfA(th)pes filled the air inside the Spinelli Barracks dining facility Jan. 27.

But this was no normal day for Mannheim as Europe's best chefs efficiently moved around the kitchen.

The competition was as hot as the food as Soldier and civilian chefs from throughout U.S. Army Europe honed their culinary skills on hot entrees, vegetables and pastries for the chance to prove themselves at the largest annual cooking competition in the United States.

After much deliberation during the training Jan. 20-30, judges announced Friday the 15 culinarians selected make the trek across the ocean to represent Installation Management Command-Europe and U.S. Army Europe and 7th Army at the 34th Annual U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition.

The team will join more than 160 military chefs from around the world and across the Department of Defense at Fort Lee, Va., Feb. 28-March 13 to compete in more than 40 categories.

"We normally have a competition to pick the best of the best, and that's what we're doing here today," said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Shirley T. Ashley, the USAREUR theater food advisor. "We have Soldiers that really want to do it, so they put their hearts into it."

Ashley pointed out the competition is not merely a cooking contest. On top of knife skills, nutritional food skills and pastries, there is also a Knowledge Bowl in which participants answer questions about the preparation of food.

"They have to cut things to a certain degree," she said, "and sometimes when they get to the competition, the evaluators actually take a ruler and they will measure."

Sgt. 1st Class Leonardo Alvarez, who has 22 years of experience in culinary arts and is a veteran of the U.S. Army Culinary Arts team, helped judge the participants throughout the training. He said several of the Soldiers had already been to culinary school, which would be a plus for the entire team.

"(We're going to) try to put the best person to the best area, because the bottom line is to win installation food service once we get to Fort Lee, and I hope we do that this year," Alvarez said.

"Everything that the Army does is training to make the Soldier better," he said. "It gives them a different level of confidence.

"They can go back to their dining facilities and share this with their Soldiers, and a lot of this can be incorporated in their day-to-day menu planning and service. All-in-all, I think it strengthens the Army food service program."

The competition is not only a great opportunity for the Soldiers in their Army careers, but it also can lead to other opportunities outside the Army as well, according to Ashley.

"It gives them the opportunity to compare themselves to their civilian counterparts," she said. "They can work toward civilian jobs when they do this type of competition. They can hone their skills and go on to become culinarians and chefs."

Many of this year's participants will experience the competition for the first time.

Two returnees from last year's team, team manager Warrant Officer Catherine Watson and Sgt. Regina Banks, will help guide the newcomers in culinary techniques and hints for handling the stress. Banks won silver in the 2008 Junior Chef of the Year competition and this year hopes to compete in the Senior Chef of the Year competition. She said hot cooking is her strength.

"I hope that with this competition and the last one, that I fine tune my skills," she said. "I'm not really bothered under pressure. I want to just fine tune it. Also with these competitions you meet so many people and you network. I just want to learn as much as I can, help the others that are coming in and just win this thing. That would be amazing."

Categories in the competition range from Best Team, Nutritional Hot Food Challenge, Most Artistic Piece and Best Centerpiece in Ice, along with the Junior and Senior Chef of the Year awards, among others.

The final team selection is as follows:

Master Sgt. Major Luckett, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Europe
Warrant Officer Catherine Watson, 7th Signal Brigade
Sgt. Jesse Parker, 529th Military Police Company
Sgt. Jason Spell, F Co., 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment
Sgt. John Lloyd, E Co., 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment
Sgt. Quincy Queen, 72nd Signal Battalion
Spc. Brian Flanders, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, USAREUR
Spc. Andrew Nicholson, Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 39th Transportation Battalion
Spc. Jaime Medina, Headquarters Support Company, 412th Aviation Support Battalion
Spc. Francis Gonzales, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 21st Theater Sustainment Command
Pfc. Julio Garcia, E Co., 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment
Pfc. Gerardo Ortiz, 529th Military Police Company
Pvt. Matthew Hendriks, 64th Transportation Company
Mr. Daniel Trawick, civilian U.S. Army Garrison Hohenfels
Mr. Julian Gude, civilian, U.S. Army Garrison Ansbach

The alternates:
Spc. Travis Williams, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 21st Theater Sustainment Command
Sgt. Regina Banks, D Co., 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery
Spc. Bradley Neaves, 66th Transportation Company
Spc. Isaac Rodgers, E Co., 2nd Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment
Mr. Phillip Goodman, civilian, U.S. Army Garrison Ansbach
Mr. Derek Smith, civilian, U.S. Army Garrison Hohenfels