ALTOONA, Pa. (Nov. 12, 2009)- Deep in the forest, hidden beneath camouflage netting and foliage, was a field kitchen filled with five Army food specialists. Although the morning air was brisk, it was heavy with tempting aromas and sounds as the soldiers diligently prepared and cooked a meal for their comrades. Preparing food for soldiers is their job, but recently these Army cooks put their best chow up to a very big test.

Army food specialists from the 298th Maintenance Company here competed recently in the Department of the Army level of the Philip A. Connelly Awards which is managed by the Quartermaster Center and School's Army Center of Excellence, Subsistence, and cosponsored by the International Food Service Executives Association and the Department of the Army. Evaluators travel from around the country to evaluate and recognize the Army's finest food service professionals.

The 298th MC Co. soldiers were awarded U.S. Army Reserve Runner-up last year, a title they hope to overtake. Having already won the Northeast region level of the program earlier this year, the soldiers are on their way to being final contenders for this year's Best Army Reserve Kitchen.

"I think we're going to take it this year," said Staff Sgt. Denise Hines. Hines competed last year and was the non-commissioned officer in charge of field sanitation, in training, during this year's evaluation.

The Connelly Awards were established by the Department of the Army and the International Food Service Executives Association in 1968, in honor of the late Philip A. Connelly; a former president of IFSEA. The program evaluates Army cooks on 10 categories to include food presentation, sanitation and site security. Five dining facility categories are evaluated: Small Garrison, Large Garrison and field kitchens in the Active Army, U.S. Army Reserve and Army National Guard.

The overall goal of the program is to keep food service at the forefront of the military, said Alfred Rudolph, IFSEA evaluator and Secretary of the Navy's Executive Dining Facility.

"Food specialists don't get recognized enough for their hard work. They work their butts off to put out a quality meal. They deserve to be recognized," said Chief Warrant Officer Teresa Domeier, Connelly evaluator and Nebraska National Guard food advisor. Although she has evaluated regional levels of the competition for nearly 14 years, this is Domeier's first time evaluating at the DA level.

The soldiers cooked through the morning hours while the three evaluators watched their every move. Every level of the competition, soldiers are required to prepare a particular menu. This year, the scent of parsley butter potatoes, calico corn with bits of bacon, minestrone soup, peppered pork chops, and yellow cake with chocolate icing could be smelled from afar.

While the tasks remained the same, this level of the competition included a new player; Spc. Ashley Hinton, of Marion Center, Pa. A recent graduate of Advanced Individual Training, this is both her first unit of assignment and her first time competing and working with the team during the Connelly Awards.

"This is my first time getting involved in this team, but they've made it very easy for me. I couldn't have asked for better leaders," said Hinton.

For the most part, the 298th soldiers are seasoned veterans and accredit their success to their ongoing participation in the competition.

"This year's evaluation is much more relaxed," said Sgt. 1st Class David Sunderland, the NCOIC of food operations. "The evaluators look for answers and only come to me when they have questions...every year we get better because we learn what to look out for."

Together, the seasoned veterans and newcomers worked together in the field kitchen environment from early morning preparation to clean-up. Working in this heated environment is not easy, but it presents an opportunity to learn from the best.

Hinton couldn't specify just one item learned from her peers throughout the competition. "I've earned more from these cooks than at AIT," she said.

Whatever the secret ingredient, the three evaluators all agree that the 298th soldiers have a good system in place.

"They're the best in their region and it takes a lot to get to this point...they're good," said Sgt. Major L'Tanya Williams, ACES evaluator from Fort Lee, Va. Williams has more than 25 years in Army food service and is in her fourth year serving as a Connelly evaluator.

Domeier was unable to divulge too much detail, however, she agreed that the unit was motivated, had a good attitude and overall, worked well together as a team, she said.

By the end of December, the soldiers will learn if their performance here will earn them a spot at the Philip A. Connelly Awards ceremony to be held in Reno, Nev., on April 15-18, 2010.

Whether they win, or lose, the 298th food service specialists can be proud of their accomplishments. Not only are the soldiers at the forefront of the competition nearly every year, but they are this year's regional winners as well. And as always, as said by Warrant Officer Kelly Sholes, food service technician, 377th Theater Support Command, "They're food is great."