FORT LEE, Va., Feb. 28, 2011 -- The opening round of the 36th Annual Culinary Arts Competition here featured 27 of the military's most adept food preparers vying for the title of Armed Forces Chef of the Year.
Arguably the most important individual event during the competition, the Chef of the Year showdown took place Feb. 27, at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence, here. Accommodating the competitors required three baking labs and a staggered schedule with a new food preparer beginning his or her round every 15 minutes.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Russell D. Campbell, Joint Culinary Center of Excellence Advanced Food Service Training Division chief and competition coordinator, said the chef of the year event sets the tone for the entire competition.
"It builds a lot of excitement. Usually a gold medal in this category shows the forerunners for the overall Installation of the Year title," said Campbell. "It's the top individual award as well - one of the last ones we present (at the end of the competition). No one will know who the leader is unless there's only one gold medal."
Part of the prestige of this event is earning the actual title of Armed Forces Chef of the Year, Campbell said, and the chef who wins goes down in history with that title as the best of all the services.
The Armed Forces Chef of the Year event tests the competitors on multiple levels, said Campbell, especially since the event has a mystery basket.
"It really displays all the talents the chef has," Campbell explained. "It helps them demonstrate their cooking capability with ingredients they don't know ahead of time, how they work under pressure, using and preparing ingredients properly, and using different cooking techniques and styles."
"It also shows how they work with their apprentice. They have to give that apprentice direction," he continued. "The apprentice can only do certain things - they can't apply heat to anything or mix ingredients. They can cut, prepare, clean and sanitize so that chef has to give them direction so they are properly used as well. It shows not only their cooking capabilities but also their leadership."
With a mystery basket, the judges test the chefs' ability to adapt to different ingredients. This year was no exception with choices like whole frog, turbot - a flat fish - and pheasant. Other items included in the mystery basket were New York Strip, radicchio, purple cauliflower, dolichos beans, Chinese yams, fingerling potatoes, persimmons, bolete mushrooms, quinoa, basil, gouda and fettuccine noodles.
The intensity of the chef of the year contest is one of its biggest attractions, said three-time competitor and silver medal awardee Staff Sgt. Motavia Alston, a member of the Pentagon Team. He said it gets better and better every year, and the best strategy is to expect the unexpected.
"It really gets intense during the last hour when the pace picks up and you just have to work as fast as you can to complete the challenge," said Alston. "I think I did a lot better this year. I felt prepared because of the experience I gained while testing myself to make sure I would be able to handle whatever they threw at me in the mystery basket."
Staff Sgt. Steven Behr, who is currently teaching at Delhi College, New York, as part of a Training with Industry program, was the first competitor of the day. Also a three-time participant, he earned a silver medal for his efforts this year.
"It was tiring (to be up so early), even though I knew I was going to be first," he said. "It was really nerve-racking because none of the other competitors were here and all the judges were watching me."
Another competitor, Spc. Omar Wilson from the Hawaii team, said he was confident even though it was his first shot at the title. His decision to compete for Chef of the Year was fueled by his previous experience as a restaurant executive chef.
"It was a new and fun experience," Wilson said, and his experienced garnered him a silver medal this year. "Overall, I think it went pretty well. There were some learning curves for me since it was my first time."
While some may have been thrown off by the ingredients, Alston said he was lucky when he saw frog on the menu.
"They caught me off guard a little bit - especially with the frog legs - but luckily, I used to see them when I was stationed in Hawaii, so I had experience with them," he said.
Getting this first, major event out of the way helps kick some chefs into gear, said Alston.
"It's always good to get it over with because you get through it, you get your motor going and you stayed revved up through the rest of the competition," he said.
This year, there were 12 silver medals and 10 bronze medals earned. Five individuals earned an honorable mention and no gold medals were awarded. The medals are awarded based on a point scale using American Culinary Federation guidelines.
The competition continues through March 9, with the awards ceremony set for March 11. Additional coverage of the competition can be found at www.fortleetraveller.com. Links to video stories can be found at www.facebook.com/ftleetraveller.