In a setting where minuscule mistakes result in harsh critiques from judges and potentially dash a team's hopes for a gold or silver medal, the level of stress and emotions can be off the charts.
The Cold Table Display category of the Joint Culinary Training Exercise - conducted here last week - is one of those apprehensive instances. Teams often pull all-nighters, furiously scrutinizing and fussing with their entries because professional pride will not allow them to do anything less than put their best work on exhibit.
A laundry list of guidelines from the American Culinary Federation shape the category. Expectations range from precise knife cuts to eye-pleasing placement on the plate. From a military training standpoint, it demonstrates attention to detail, the ability to work as a team and a generous portion of mission focus ... doing whatever it takes to get the job done.
"It's going to be pretty obvious who puts in the long hours to perfect the details and who doesn't," one coach pointedly told his crew as they got to work on their entry March 11. He also emphasized that last year's winner - Team Hawaii - stayed up all night.
Sgt. Nickesha Carmichael from the Fort Drum, N.Y., team said the amount of work that goes into preparing for something like a cold table display is long and arduous.
"We literally practiced it over and over for three months," she said. "Every day, we spent 12-15 hours a day practicing the same dishes and trying to find new techniques to make it special. In this category, there's a lot of attention to detail, and you have to be dedicated to the craft. The smallest margin of error can be the difference between a gold and a silver medal. "
Carmichael was tested in two categories - C1 petit fours and C2 plated dessert - and earned a silver and gold medal for her efforts.
"I was very surprised I did so well," she said. "I'm not a pastry chef, and I have only been working on it for three months.
While the teams spend up to 24 hours working on their side plates, the centerpiece is typically created well in advance. This year, those who attended the exercise saw some truly incredible pieces like the leaning tower of Pisa by the Marines and a dazzling elephant for the Fort Stewart, Ga., team.
Spc. Mark Pulido from Fort Bliss, Texas, received recognition for the best exhibit showpiece during the JCTE award ceremony March 15 at the Lee Theater. He sculpted Aphrodite for his team table. He had tears of joy streaming down his face when he went up to receive his trophy.
"I spent the last three months working 2-4 hours each day on the piece," Pulido said after the event. "Someone broke into our dining facility and ruined our first version of the talo figure. I don't know why."
The fact that he had overcome that obstacle and well-represented his team at Fort Lee was undoubtedly a personal victory, but the award he was handed will serve as a lasting symbol of the accomplishment.
"I really didn't expect this recognition," he said. "(Other teams) had really great centerpieces too. I just didn't expect it."