GRAFENWOEHR, Germany - After more than a week of slicing, dicing, simmering and sautAfAing, 12 Soldier-chefs emerged as the cream of the U.S. Army Europe Culinary Arts crop, Nov. 19. In February, the team will compete in the 34th Annual U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition at Fort Lee, Va.

More than 30 competitors from six major garrisons vied for the coveted 12 slots, but the trail-by-fire competitions, which ran Nov. 5-13, were no cakewalk.

For example, in the Senior Chef of the Year category, participants were given a mystery basket of ingredients and had four hours to prepare a four-course meal for 10 people. In the Nutritional Hot Food Challenge, two-person teams had 90 minutes to create a healthy two-course meal from a mystery basket of two proteins.

During the static display portion, competitors began at midnight and had until 6 a.m. "to get it all on the table," according to Sgt. Maj. Mark Warren, U.S. Army Europe Chief Food Management, who helped judge the competition.

But it wasn't just about the food.

Sgt. Willie Coleman and his team from U.S. Army Garrison Schweinfurt built a static display centerpiece called "Remembrance," which was dedicated to the 13 Soldiers who were killed at Fort Hood, Texas. The two-foot cubed centerpiece contained a Soldier's helmet and US flag with dog tags hanging from the flagpole - all made from soft dough.

"(Our team) is a lot of first timers," Coleman said, "so hopefully I can bring them back next year and build on this."

Coleman's team of first-time competitors was no anomaly for this year's competition. In fact, nine of the 12 chefs who made the USAREUR team had no prior experience in the competition.

However, this obviously wasn't their first time in a kitchen.

First-time competitor Pfc. William Pelkey (Team Grafenwoehr) joined the Army in April. But with more than 23 years cooking experience, four of those as a cook in the Coast Guard, he can do more than just boil water.

"I take some things (from training events) and distill it into things I've done in the past. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," said Pelkey, who was the runner up in the Junior Chef of the Year competition and one of the 12 chefs selected for the USAREUR team.

Another first-time competitor, Staff Sgt. Levy Robinson (also from Team Grafenwoehr), made the USAREUR team by scoring the highest in the live cooking and static display categories, earning 37.5 out of a possible 40 points. Last year he was an infantryman.

Participants like Robinson and Pelkey drew from their own experience but also picked up ideas from other chefs in the competition - including one of the judges.

Kelly Conwell, the U.S. National Student Chef of the Year, took a break from her studies at a culinary exchange program near Erfurt, Germany, to help judge the competition.

In addition to judging, Conwell was able to "practice a little," she said, before she leaves in January to compete internationally at the Hans Bueschkens World Junior Chefs' Challenge in Santiago, Chile.

"The Soldiers are reaping the benefit by having (Conwell) here because they see things she's doing and want to mimic them," Warren said.

For now, the 12 members of the USAREUR team will return to their units and begin individual preparation for the competition.

As team leaders, Warren and Sgt. 1st Class Leonardo Alvarez, dining facility noncommissioned officer in charge, will develop requirements for the competition and assign Soldiers to individual and team categories for which they are best suited.

"We have a young team, however, they all exhibit the ability to adapt to the training to be successful at the (Department of the Army) level," Warren said. "I think with proper training and practice, we'll be tough to beat."

Editor's Note: Suzanne Bartsch, U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr Public Affairs, contributed reporting.