The 44th Annual Joint Culinary Training Exercise began, March 8, at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence, Fort Lee, Virginia.
The annual JCTE is the largest American Culinary Federation-sanctioned competition in North America and showcases the talent of military chefs from around the globe in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, including foreign military teams.
U.S. Army Staff. Sgt. Carlos Mercado, an advanced culinary noncommissioned officer from the 426th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Kentucky, joined 18 other military chefs to compete in the culinary exercise's first event - Armed Forces Chef of the Year.
Mercado's task was to prepare a four-course meal using the ingredients inside a mystery box that he received just minutes before the event.
"When I received the mystery box, the most difficult part was creating the menu," Mercado said. "You can think of 1,000 menu ideas, but the real issue is when you go back to the pantry to check your ingredients, you have to go with what's available."
After viewing the ingredients, Mercado had to create a menu, then provide the menu to the ACF judges before he could begin to cook. Then, he and his apprentice, Pfc. Tahandra Honoré, a student member of the Fort Campbell Culinary Arts Team from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 101 Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Abn. Div. (Air Assault), had three hours to prepare and 30 minutes to plate and serve each dish for the judges to critique.
"The challenge with having a time constraint is getting the product out in time," Mercado said. "You have to start with the product that takes the longest, then move on to the next one. It's a pressure that, as a chef, you enjoy."
Pitted against the clock, Mercado composed four dishes. His meal began with a butter-poached lobster salad with a pomegranate vinaigrette, roasted pine nuts and pecorino cheese, all topped with a pan-seared scallop. His appetizer was braised beef empanadas with a red pepper sauce. For the main course, he served cilantro rice and roasted pork with a white wine sauce and sautéed garlic asparagus. Dessert was bread pudding and candied pecans, topped with whipped cream and a raspberry coulis.
Mercado, who hails from Isabela, Puerto Rico, said his love of culinary arts comes from his mother and his cooking style is heavily influenced by his culture. Even with specific ingredients provided during this event, Mercado infused his meals with Latin flair.
"My mom is the greatest chef," said Mercado, who added that he remembers learning to cook when he was just five years old. "The seasonings [she used] back home is my culture, so I try to have my seasonings everywhere I go to implement it into my dishes. When I taste them, I feel comfortable with the flavors, and when I present the meal, I feel comfortable. If I like it, I feel confident that judges will also like it."
Jill Bosich, national chairperson for the American Culinary Federation, was one of four judges to taste and critique each course of Mercado's meal. She explained her grading criteria for this particular event.
"We have specific score sheets that are dedicated to this particular category, and the first thing [we critique] is sanitation and safety, and then, craftsmanship, skills and techniques," Bosich said. "I think in this particular category, I want everyone to feel good about their participation; just for putting themselves in this experience right away separates [them] from so many others in the field. Whether the takeaway is a medal or not, the experience is absolutely lifelong and for lifelong learning."
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Joseph Wisniewski, Joint Culinary Center of Excellence Advanced Culinary Division chief and team manager of the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team, shares similar sentiments about the competition and said that regardless of who wins, the competitors sharpen their culinary competencies.
"[The JCTE] increases their skills, and exposes them to techniques and products that you might not normally see on a daily basis," said Wisniewski. "It trains them in preparing meals to feed the warfighter [and] the warfighter needs [the meals] to conduct their mission."
Mercado's ambition to compete stems from his long-term goal of joining the Army's Culinary Arts Team. He and 35 other culinary artists participating in the JCTE declared their intention to join the team as part of their entrance application and wore red ribbons to designate their candidacy to the judges.
"By winning this competition it'll definitely help me join the Army's Culinary Arts Team and will bring about a lot of opportunity to not only travel the world, but get to know people," Mercado said.
Mercado also hopes to serve as a role model for the junior culinary arts specialists on his team and in his unit. He said he would like his Soldiers to become better than he is by learning from his experiences during the Chef of the Year category.
"I want all my junior 92Gs [culinary specialists] to understand this job is not just about [working in the] dining facility throughout their career," Mercado said. "There's a lot of open opportunities for the juniors to strive for. By competing in these categories and competitions annually, it will help them not only get to know the right people, but also, the experience and knowledge gained will help them be successful in their future. There are a lot of options; you've just got to strive, stay humble, and find the information.