FORT LEE, Va. (Feb. 28) -- Kitchens in the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence heated up early Sunday morning as the 35th U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition began its first cooking event: Armed Forces Chef of the Year.

The top military chefs from all U.S. military services and multiple Army commands around the globe gathered to pit their culinary skills against each other and themselves, vying for the top culinary honor.

Each competitor operated from a workstation equipped with a stove, counter space and an all-important helper: a sous chef, who was able to assist in clean-up and cutting.

The culinarians were given a mystery basket containing the main ingredients for a meal - duck, dover sole, mussels and beef tenderloin, among others items - and were able to augment the mystery ingredients with a large variety of fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables, and dried herbs and spices.

"We want to see that they can cut up meat properly, not leaving too much meat on the bones," said mystery basket author Sgt. Monique Sorrell, a JCCoE instructor and a former competitor. Sorrell captained the Hawaii team in 2009, and brought home third place in the Installation of the Year event.

Judges also noted cutting techniques, like julienne, and the ability to open fresh shellfish like mussels and oysters, Sorrell said.

Most of the culinary competitors work in military dining facilities, and skills learned in this competition will be used in these DFACs, Sorrell said.

"Once you see what you get as far as a protein, you just work it out from there," said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Daniel O'Connell, a first-time Armed Forces Chef competitor from the Fort Lee Marine Corps Detachment.

Although ingredients and seasonings were plentiful, one of the challenges was figuring out side dishes that would match many different protein options, he said.

Within four hours, the meal had to be completed and ready for the judges or competitors would lose points. Military floor judges circulated through the workstations during preparation, and tasting judges from the American Culinary Federation awarded points on technique, taste and appearance.

"We have judges from other countries so we have a good international flair," said Chief Warrant Officer Russell Campbell, chief of the Advanced Food Service Training Division at the JCCoE. Judges came from as far away as Switzerland and Sweden, he said.

The total points from the floor and tasting judges gave competitors their final scores. Competitors were eligible for gold, silver and bronze medals based on the points they earned. The point system allows more than one chef to be awarded a particular medal.

O'Connell came away from his first Armed Forces Chef experience with a silver medal, and Fort Monroe's Staff Sgt. Joshua Spiess earned the only gold medal of the competition.