FORT LEE, VA. (March 3, 2019) -- Chefs decked out in aprons and toques hustling about the kitchen.
The sizzle of meat as it comes into contact with a hot skillet.
A symphony of aromas permeating the classroom kitchens and beyond.
All of these sight, sounds and smells -- accented by the spice of pure professionalism -- signaled the start of the Joint Culinary Training Exercise, the Quartermaster School's long-running, multi-layered showcase of the military food service profession.
This year's feast for the senses attracted more than 200 personnel from each of the five uniformed services representing installations all over the world, as well as a contingent of international participants.
The JCTE's marquee event, Armed Forces Chef of the Year, kicked off the training agenda Friday at Fort Lee's Joint Culinary Training Center. AFCOY requires military personnel to prepare a four-course meal in four hours with the help of an apprentice.
Sounds simple, right? Not so much. The main ingredients for the meal are not revealed to participants until a few minutes before start time. The mystery basket, as it is called, requires contestants to demonstrate composure and creativity in using what is provided along with the ability to think quickly.
Staff Sgt. Carlos Mercado from Fort Campbell, Ky., was among the 19 culinarians who fired up stoves for the occasion.
"This event is awesome," said the culinary specialist who has prior experience at the JCTE. "Just to see all my battle buddies here from every branch of the military … and it's just amazing to see the craft and the skills we all have. We're sisters and brothers with two jobs: protecting the country and feeding our Soldiers."
Mercado sees AFCOY as an exercise in quick decision making and efficient execution of required tasks. Second-guessing and slipups can turn the best laid plans into chaos.
"You never know what they're going to throw at you," he said. "You can plan ahead, but you never know."
When the surprise ingredients were all laid on the table, so to speak, Mercado said he kept the menu basic -- cilantro rice with roasted pork, red wine sauce and sautéed vegetables for his entre and bread pudding with fruit coulis for dessert.
"I'm a simple man," he said, smiling. "I just cook."
A heavily emphasized point about AFCOY is that it's not merely a contest but more of a culmination exercise requiring participants to bring with them everything learned as culinarians -- from the management techniques gleaned over the years of preparing meals for large groups to the intricate knife-cutting skills required for special events -- along with the ability to push through the intangibles that make the event challenging and competitive.
That's what attracted participants like Sgt. Daniela Marquez, a member of the Fort Bliss, Texas, culinary team.
"I wanted the challenge and a new experience," she confirmed.
Marquez competed in another capacity at the JCTE two years ago, and with various experiences under her belt, felt sufficiently confident to enter the signature event. She began training five months ago.
"It was more challenging," she said of the actual competition. "I thought it was going to be a little easier."
She struggled with the mystery basket but received assistance and support from judges. JCTE is unique because of its sanctioning by the American Culinary Federation and the squad of experts from that organization who serve as mentors and teachers at the event, providing participants with thorough critiques after each cooking session.
Appreciating the emphasis on camaraderie and creativity, event mainstays that foster the interactive experience, Marquez confirmed the positive outcome for her was the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills from the AFCOY heat.
"It was worth it," she said of her preparation and event participation. "It was a good experience. I don't think a lot people want to compete for this event, or take the time to train for it, but it was worth what I got from it."
The same can be said for the apprentices assigned to each of the chefs. They can gain just as much as the participants fetching ingredients, preparing cooking areas and test-tasting the creations. Pfc. Tahandra Honore, the apprentice for Mercado, did not downplay her second-fiddle role, saying it is an experience that pays dividends.
"I feel like sometimes you have to be a follower before you can be a leader," she observed. "A lot of people see apprentices as a 'do-boy' or 'do-girl,' but it's a great opportunity and a way to get your name out there. If you don't know how to be an apprentice, how can you know what it takes to be a chef?"
Honore, who is assigned to a dining facility at Fort Campbell, said one of the most important lessons she learned was time management and making quick decisions.
"The DFAC has a much slower pace," she said. "You have a lot more time for people to work with you on things. Here, there's a much faster pace, but you just have to figure it out. Something goes wrong, just figure it out."
Honore has plans to become certified through the ACF. To that end, the foundation provides various credentialing opportunities for all food service personnel to pursue at their home stations; a point it actively promotes at the training exercise.
The final results for AFCOY will not be known until the awards ceremony set for Friday at the Lee Theater. Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Behr from Fort Carson, Colo., was last year's AFCOY gold medalist.
In addition to the award hardware for each of the JCTE's competitive categories, participants are afforded the opportunity to earn spots on the Army Culinary Arts Team, which represents the U.S. Armed Forces in events such as the Culinary Olympics held in Germany.
The Quartermaster School's Joint Culinary Center of Excellence administers the JCTE. The training event was established in 1973.