FORT BRAGG, N.C. - "The 'A team', that's what they call us. Everybody from the ration guy, the supply guy to our bosses - everybody's makin' it happen," said Aquilino Alberto Sanchez, one of the Fort Bragg chefs set to defend the installation's title during the Army's most prestigious culinary competition.

For weeks, Sanchez and 78 food service personnel have prepped dishes and perfected their food presentation to 'wow' judges for the annual Phillip A. Connelly Awards. This title doesn't mean much to the average diner who enjoys a $4.25 meal at the 82nd Special Troops Battalion dining facility, but for the chefs who serve them, a Connelly Award is akin to winning the Super Bowl.

The best large-service facility receives a sizable silver cup, and (possibly) an invitation to train at prestigious culinary institutes like Le Cordon Bleu College in Atlanta.

"The manager of the facility gets a Super Bowl-style ring with a diamond. In 44 years of the Phillip Connelly there's only been 13 rings given out, and four of them are right here on Fort Bragg," said Alonzo Powell, dining facility manager of the 82nd DSTB dining facility.

Powell, who first entered his facility into the competition last year, sometimes sports his ring as a reminder of the team's celebrated commitment to excellence. But he is quick to point out that the employees, many of whom served in the military, are self-motivated people who take pride in their jobs. He said winning the award is mere "icing on the cake" for the men and women who are passionate about food preparation.

"When they see the customer happy and hear the comments, I think that's the biggest reward for them," added Powell, who oversees a breakfast crowd of 1,500 and a lunch rush of 800 to 1,400 patrons.

Powell and his team begin the day at 5 a.m. to prepare for the 7 a.m. breakfast that includes blueberry pancakes and pecan waffles. When breakfast breaks down at 9 a.m., the workers focus on lunch preparations for the 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. crowd. They serve dishes like prime rib with sautAfAed onion and au jus, stuffed fish with lemon and white dill sauce, slow roasted barbeque pork tenderloin and teriyaki catfish over yellow rice.

"We try to be the best restaurant in town," noted Powell, who offers an amazing variety of food for under $5. In response, Fort Bragg's Better Opportunity for Single Soldiers program named the 82nd DSTB the best dining facility for single Soldiers. "We know we're in an elite class because a lot of our diners are coming from all parts of the post," Powell said.

Their reputation is enough to attract Soldiers like Shaun Elizondo of Company B, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Abn. Div., who visited on Sept. 30, because friends called the dining facility a notch above the rest. For diners like Elizondo, food options are a priority.

"I don't want to eat the same thing every day," he said.

With chefs like Sanchez serving the Soldiers, Elizondo will not be disappointed. This member of the "A team" comes from a line of cooks, tracing his culinary heritage to the two restaurants his mother owned - one in New Jersey and one in Panama. Elizondo spends the early part of each day on Fort Bragg, refining his technique, before heading home to teach his youngest daughter some kitchen skills of her own.

"My favorite dish would be the shrimp scampi, because you have to prove yourself. It looks simple but you have to put your heart into it - you have to make sure your shrimp is right, the noodles are right, and the cream that I do is from scratch," said Sanchez.

On Oct. 7, as part of the Phillip A. Connelly Awards, the local team of chefs will have some distinguished palates to please. A trio of traveling judges includes Chief Warrant Officer 4 Ellen Magras, chief of management assistance division and a master certified food executive; Sgt. Maj. Andrea Farmer, chief of quartermaster enlisted proponency at the Quartermaster Center and School in Fort Lee, Va., who holds a degree in food service management; and Jim Riddle, a former Army food service instructor and a member of the International Food Service Executives Association.

Judges grade participants on pre-service functions like food preparation and sanitation, as well as on taste, nutrition and presentation. Technical procedures like record keeping are also scored.
Separate teams will evaluate Fort Bragg at the small DFAC level (the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade dining facility) and in the active Army field competition (126th Transportation Company, 82nd Sustainment Bde., ) during October and November.

"Fort Bragg is at a historical level because we have made it to the DA level with all three events. This alone has never been accomplished by any other installation," said Harry Ruckel, Fort Bragg's installation food program manager. If Fort Bragg takes the prize for each category, this ground-breaking feat will usher in a new era for the Phillip A. Connelly Awards and for the chefs who covet the winner's silver cup.