By Amy PerryMarch 20, 2019
FORT LEE, Va. -- For the first time in Joint Culinary Training Exercise history, the Marine Corps was called to the stage of the Lee Theater March 15 to accept the event's illustrious Team of Year title.
The honor is bestowed on the squad that accumulates the highest point totals - represented by gold, silver and bronze medals - while demonstrating their skills in team and individual categories throughout the exercise. The Marines are relative newcomers to JCTE, with this being its fifth year of representation.
Most people in attendance at the closing ceremony expected a repeat of the winning announcements from the last three years, all proclaiming Team Hawaii as the top title recipients. A resident of that camp was Staff Sgt. Chris Hamilton, team captain for the Marines, who assumed they had earned a third-place nod after hearing a rumor that Fort Drum had secured the second-place runner-up spot.
"When I joined this team two years ago, I was aware that Hawaii was on a winning streak, and beating them became my No. 1 goal," said Hamilton, who works at Fort Lee as a Joint Culinary Training Center instructor. "This year, I was in charge of the team for the first time, I had my expectations for all ten competitors to walk across the stage, but I knew I wanted this title the most. People started talking about our team a few days into it, and we were still in it on the final day, so that gave us lots of hope.
"However, when we heard Fort Drum called as the runner-up, we were like 'oh well, we probably got third, but we'll try again next year,'" he continued. "Then came the announcement and we heard (we had been chosen as the team of the year). There was a lot of emotion. It started with screaming and many of us still have tears in our eyes, 30 minutes later."
The Marine team showed they are a forced to be reckoned with and plan to come back next year even stronger, Hamilton promised.
Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher Sanchez also earned the title of Armed Force Student Chef of the Year. Other notable awards include: Team Hawaii with the best overall table; Fort Drum with best student team; Fort Carson with the best military hot food kitchen entry; Team France with International Team of the Year; Sergeants Klinton Bautista and Clarence Robinson, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., as the best Nutritional Hot Food Challenge duo; Spc. Mark Caseres from Team Hawaii as the Armed Forces Chef of the Year; Chief Petty Officer Frida Karani, Navy team, as the Master Chef winner; Sgt. Bruce Serafica, Fort Carson, Colo., earned Best in Show individual honors; and Staff Sgt. Samantha Poe, District of Columbia, earned Pastry Chef of the Year, a first-time category.
Spc. Mark Pulido from Fort Bliss, Texas, received recognition for the best exhibit showpiece, and had tears of joy streaming down his face when he went up to receive his award. He sculpted Aphrodite for his team table.
"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 one. I don't know why.
"Looking back on all that work, though, I still didn't expect this recognition," he continued. "The Marines and Fort Stewart had really great centerpieces too. I just didn't expect it at all."
Pulido and most of the individual winners earned scholarships to culinary institutes as part of their recognition.
Joint Culinary Center of Excellence coordinators labeled this year's training exercise as "an unmitigated success" with 293 American Culinary Federation medals awarded to chefs from each of the services.
Each year, service members use the JCTE as their chance to join the prestigious U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team. It serves as the military's national culinary ambassadors and offers members the opportunity to compete in international-level events.
Poe; Serafica; Spc. Kaitlyn Tran, Fort Carson; Staff Sgt. Andrew Shurden, Fort Stewart, Ga.; Culinary Specialist 2nd Class Jeffrey Plotz, U.S. Coast Guard; Culinary Specialist 1st Class Jeremy Anderson, U.S. Naval War College, R.I.; Staff Sgt. Justin Chase, Fort Meade, Md.; and Sgt. Nickesha Carmichael, Pfc. Jordon Broadway, and Pfc. Tylor Brooks, Fort Drum, will represent the U.S. Armed Forces at February's Culinary Olympics held in Stuttgart, Germany.
Fort Drum's Chase earned enlisted aide of the year. He serves as the enlisted aide to Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, director of the National Security Agency, and chief of the Central Security Service.