SCHOFIELD BARRACKS, Hawaii - Spc. Terry Nowak strolled in to the Warrior Inn Dining Facility (DFAC), here, Monday, looking amazingly alert for someone who had spent the last few days slaving over a tiny town, and building it up from scratch.

Hour after hour, he moved between his North Shore kitchen and the DFAC, baking enough construction material to fashion a miniature gingerbread village. After the moist, dark cakes had cooled, he began assembling the village, piece by piece - first, a general store, then a train station (equipped with a locomotive), next, a church and finally, a gingerbread house.

The undertaking was quite extensive, even by his standards as an experienced baker. Nevertheless, the end result was exhilarating, he admitted, if only because the edible town had the sweet smell of creative success.

"I think I probably spent about 20 hours total working on the village, but it was all worth it to me," said Nowak, food service specialist, 225th Brigade Support Battalion (BSB), 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT). "After all, this is my chance to be recognized for my work."

Soldiers like Nowak have been burning the midnight oil as of late, hoping their culinary skills would help lead their teams to taste victory at the annual Thanksgiving Day meal competition among DFAC personnel on Oahu.

The contest, which honors participating DFACs and their Soldiers through team and individual awards, helps to boost morale and promote professionalism among the military's food service providers.

Universally, the Soldiers agreed that this was their favorite time of year. For one thing, the DFACs got to serve up the traditional Thanksgiving feast and trimmings to their customers, utilizing roughly 600 pounds of turkey, 335 pounds of fresh ham, 250 pounds of sweet potatoes, and 325 pounds of mashed potatoes in the process.

For another and maybe more important reason, the competition was an opportunity for these food service providers to show off their skills inside a kitchen.

Or as Sgt. Jonathan Castro, kitchen supervisor, 225th BSB, 2nd SBCT, put it, "This is the time of year for us to shine."

Hours before the judges presented this year's award winners, competing Soldiers were already demonstrating their bravado, declaring that their dining facility, with its accompanying theme, culinary arts display, decor packages and overall appearance, would, like cream, rise to the top.

"I feel quite confident that we will prevail," offered Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Dussell, food manager, Fort Shafter's Paradise Haven DFAC, Headquarters Support Company, U.S. Army-Pacific.

He noted that his crew of 12 Soldiers worked "countless" hours, whipping up an assortment of pumpkin pies, creme brulee and cheesecake, as well as a chocolate fountain with assorted fruits to dip, in the hope of impressing judges from such commands as the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, 25th Infantry Division and U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii.

The proof of his Soldiers' talents, he added, was in the pudding, so to speak. "I'd expect nothing less from them than their best," said Dussell.

Sgt. 1st Class Robert Miller, manager, 45th Sustainment Brigade, K-Quad DFAC, disagreed with Dussell's prediction, saying that if any facility should be tooting its horn, it's his.

"When you're the best of the best, you're always ready to go," said Miller, whose team's theme this year, Mardi Gras, paid tribute to victims of 2005's Hurricane Katrina. "We won it all last year, and I still feel like we've got the best food connoisseurs in all of the Army."

Sgt. 1st Class Derek Smith, facility manager at Warrior Inn, took a more neutral stance when asked if the 2nd SBCT would win.

"I hope they surprise me," he said of his crew, which numbered about 60. "Still, it's not about winning. For us, it's about letting them be as creative as possible."

In putting together his crew's luau theme for the competition, Smith revealed that he began making preparations months ago, in large part because his team included about 50 Soldiers who'd be baking for the first time.

But in getting an early start, he discovered that competing Soldiers were able to grow into their roles at a comfortable pace.

As a result, the 2nd SBCT was able to unveil a smorgasbord of delights at the competition, including 20 cakes, three fruit-filled cornucopia - one of which was 5-feet in length, two ice sculptures and the aforementioned gingerbread village.

"It was challenging, especially when you have a bunch of Soldiers who aren't familiar with your system, not to mention the competition itself," Smith observed. "But there was a lot of coaching and mentoring along the way, and the Soldiers, who are doing this for the first time, are confident."