FORT LEE, Va. – The Joint Culinary Training Exercise returns here in full splendor March 3-10 with more than 180 military food service personnel from around the world slated to challenge each other – and themselves – in an event largely rooted in the “Top Chef” tradition of kitchen combat.
Celebrating its 47th iteration, this year’s JCTE follows a cancellation in 2021 and a limited function in 2022 due to COVID-related restrictions.
Most JCTE events are open to the public at the MacLaughlin Fitness Center. The public days during which fans can watch contestants prepare meals live are March 4-9, from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. Spectators will have the chance to witness contestants from the five service branches – as well as those from France, Germany and the United Kingdom – prepare pastries, entrees and more.
The American Culinary Federation-sanctioned JCTE offers troops a unique platform to showcase all they are as culinarians. The skills they cultivate are foundational to job proficiency and, ultimately, mission readiness, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Karlatta D. Brown, a previous JCTE winner and now officer in charge of the Advanced Culinary Division and Enlisted Aide Course at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence.
“They get opportunities to step outside of their routines, show what they know, push themselves to unspecified heights and learn what the career field has to offer while doing something great for themselves and their eating establishments,” said Brown, who competed in her first event 17 years ago.
Hosted by JCCoE, an element of the Quartermaster School headquartered here, JCTE is an oddity among military training exercises. While held under realistic conditions, it does not take place in a field environment. Instead, participants – many who have trained for months – prepare dishes and meals in kitchens under the scrutiny of ACF judges who provide immediate feedback designed to further their skills.
Brown said the intense-but-compressed learning experience results in highly motivated culinarians with envious skills rather than “enemy kills.” Additionally, participants earn medals, certificates, trophies and continuing education credit hours that can be used toward credentialing.
Ultimately, JCTE serves as a vehicle to pass on skills, said retired Chief Warrant Officer 3 Charles H. Talley, who presided over the competition several years ago.
“The bottom-line expectation is that participants will better their skills,” he said. “They will then take the training received here at Fort Lee and return to their home stations with knowledge, skills and credentials that will make their home station programs better.”
Among the most notable of JCTE’s 10 categories is the Armed Forces Chef of the Year event. It pits the military’s best culinarians against one another in a timed contest under “mystery basket” conditions, meaning contestants are required to prepare meals without knowing the ingredients beforehand.
“This event really shows who is the best,” said Capt. Nicholas Tommas, event chair and JCTE officer in charge. “It brings out their abilities and forces them to think on their toes ... to create something on the spot.”
AFCOY is scheduled for March 3 with the Student Chef of the Year event the next day. Both are closed to the public.
The most coveted title, Culinary Team of the Year, is a culmination event in which 11 installation-level teams will compete and earn points for their performance in various categories.
Student Pastry Chef of the Year – is a new addition this year, joining previous fan-favorites such as Pastry Chef of the Year, Student Team of the Year and Team Tables. The latter is a feast for the eyes, featuring glazed food displays and elaborate tallow sculptures that highlight food presentation skills.
Perhaps the most anticipated event – at least among foodies – is the Mobile Kitchen Trailer competition scheduled for each of the public days. This is an occasion in which teams prepare four-course meals for public consumption in modified field kitchens. Tickets are required and are sold at the fitness center on a first-come, first-serve basis. The cost is $6.85 per person.
Not least, culinarians will be selected for the prestigious U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team, which represents the Department of Defense in competitive training events around the world throughout the year.
The JCTE awards ceremony is scheduled for March 10 at the Post Theater.
For more information on JCTE, call 804-734-3274 or visit www.facebook.com/Army.Culinary.