FORT DRUM, N.Y. - The Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team geared up before traveling this week to Fort Lee, Va., to participate in the 35th annual U.S. Army Culinary Art Competition, the largest culinary arts competition in the country.

Members showcased their talents and skills by creating some of their dishes Monday at 10th Sustainment Brigade Dining Facility.

The main attraction was a replica of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, constructed out of more than 50 pounds of chocolate tallow, standing nearly four feet tall. The piece was detailed down to the statue of Poseidon holding his trident set atop the tower.

Staff Sgt. Erik Villela, team manager, from Headquarters Support Company, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 10th Mountain Division (LI), assisted by Spc. Joshua Leonard of HSC, HHB, spent more than four weeks constructing the piece.

"You really have to love this (food art); either you love it or you don't," Villela said.

With Villela's piece the center of attention, surrounding it were plates of food his fellow teammates prepared to show Soldiers their talents and to demonstrate that food can be turned into art. Before they left for the competition, team members also prepared a three-course meal for commanders and fellow Soldiers to sample.

The Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team hopes to win the Installation of the Year competition, which is the most sought-after trophy in the show.

Staff Sgt. Robbie Myers, team captain, of 710th Brigade Support Battalion, has competed in this event five times and knows what it takes to be a strong competitor and win.

"Today is just a test run for when we are at the competition. We will put in a lot of long hours day in and day out," he said.

The Fort Drum team is composed of 10 members for the competition.

"We're actually short two people. A normal team consists of 12 members, so it's more of a challenge for us being short personnel," Villela said.

Team members have had only a few weeks to prepare for this event, but they feel confident that they will do well at the competition, he added.

"It's not for everybody. It's real demanding and (requires) a lot of attention to detail," Villela said.
"The biggest challenge is taking an ordinary food service specialist from a dining facility and literally have to embed advanced culinary techniques in a matter of weeks," Myers said.

"Some of the skills and techniques that they actually do and come close to mastering take some people years," Myers added. "What really sets apart a chef from a cook is the willingness to seek self-improvement and knowledge in our craft."

Myers is participating in eight individual competitions in addition to helping to manage the team.
"It can be rough, but it's fun though, especially seeing these guys progress and advance in our job field and take the skills they learn here back to their dining facility to make the quality of food better," he said.

Another teammate, Spc. Samantha Kempson, of 563rd Military Police Company, said she is very happy to be on the team and really thankful to have an opportunity like this because a lot of people never get this chance. She said she enjoys baking pastries and worked in a pastry shop before joining the military.

Kempson, who started out as an apprentice, was given an opportunity by Myers to participate in a one-hour competition in which she will prepare lobster with garlic couscous and asparagus with a citrus butter sauce.

"I'm very confident in my dish and going to Fort Lee to compete," she said.
Cpl. Sarita Taylor, of 511th MP Company, said she will assist anyone on the team who needs help during the competition.

"The biggest thing I have learned is making food look pretty and appetizing at the same time," she said. "I think it's a wonderful experience, and I hope next year that there will be a lot more people to join the team."

The competition, sanctioned by the American Culinary Federation, showcases the talents of military chefs around the globe in all branches of the U.S. armed forces. The competition at Fort Lee will take place Saturday to March 13.

"We hope to do well in this competition, but the main thing we stress to the team is to have fun," Myers said.