FORT LEE, Va. (March 10, 2011) -- The first time at culinary arts competitions is always the most trying. A generous helping of anxiety, expectation and general uncertainty loom in a significant way. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Joseph Wisniewski remembers the emotions well.

"I thought it was cool to be at a culinary competition," said the 12-year Soldier, "yet I was a little nervous about my skills and whether I was going to be able to compete at that level."

That's what many contestants feel the first time they compete at the Culinary Arts Competition here. The CAC, held for the 36th time, is hosted by the U.S. Army Quartermaster School's Joint Culinary Center of Excellence. It attracts more than 200 military members from all branches of the Armed Forces, aiming to increase culinary skills and ultimately, military food service.

Moreover, it has proven to be a momentous and eye-opening experience for the rookie contestants, including a young specialist named Wisniewski.

"I felt a great sense of accomplishment," he said about his first time at the competition. "It made me feel better about Army food service and what I could learn."

Wisniewski felt strongly enough about his rookie year at the CAC that he put together a Fort Campbell (Ky.) team that is comprised entirely of first-timers. One of them, Pfc. Angela Taylor, a 25-year-old from Merritt Island, Fla., wore a toothy smile and exuded enthusiasm by the pot load during her team's Culinary Skills event performance.

"I'm loving it," she said on the crowded competition floor at the Post Field House. "I'm enjoying myself. I'm learning a lot, and I'm having a great time." But it's not all smiles and having a "great time for many of the competition rookies."

The magnitude of the competition was simply more than some could fathom. "I was terrified the first day," said Spc. Katrina Guillen, a 27-year-old and a member of the Fort Hood (Texas) Culinary Team. "It's kind of overwhelming once you get here, seeing all you have to do. It's nuts."

The participants, some of whom have prepared six months for the right to represent themselves and their teams, are barraged at the very onset with requirements - moving cookware to practice and exhibit areas, preparing menus and practicing their events. Guillen said her team pulled an all-nighter to get ready for one event.

"Our team for the last two days has been working the whole 24 hours," said the Bloomfield, Neb. native after one event. "You left the motel when it was dark and you got back when it was dark."

Preparing and competing in the events can toss around your emotions as well, said Airman 1st Class Gretchen Sarmiento, a member of the Joint Base Langley-Eustis team.

"You're sad, you're angry and you're stressed," she said, "but at the same time, you tell yourself, 'Hey, you've got to keep moving on.'"

For some, "moving on" meant having a short memory and treating the experience as a learning event. Airman Antonette Cabantog, Sarmiento's teammate, said no matter how she fared in the events, she would carry a positive attitude.

"I came here with no expectation," she said. "I did my thing, they (the judges) critiqued me and I take that as a good thing. I know that will help improve my skills."

The preparation prior to the event, the category entered and the critique provided by the judges can markedly increase the skill level. Marine Sgt. Anthony White said the pre-event work has paid big dividends for him.

"The work to get to this competition has been most beneficial," he said, "because that's when I learned the most. Here, you're just perfecting what we've been practicing for the past couple of months." Winning a medal during any of the events may validate the effort spent in preparation, but there are other benefits as well.

"It gives you a different mentality about food service outside of a dining facility," said Spc. Keldrick Owens, Fort Hood Culinary Team.

Dining facilities, or DFAC for short, are where most of the contestants work. Depending on their size, they can feed anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of personnel. Because they are mass-feeding facilities, they tend to emphasize production.

"A lot of Soldiers who work in the DFACs think about the fact that they have to work long weekends or holidays," said Owens. "This competition is the beautiful side of food service. It gives you the opportunity to broaden your horizon, express yourself."

It also provides contestants with a nurturing, positive atmosphere, one in which the contestants can stick their chests out and feel proud, said Owens.

"When you're back at the DFAC and you're wearing cook whites (the standard uniform), it's not all that fulfilling," he said, "but when you're here and wearing the chefs jackets, you feel like you're the best of the best."

Sarmiento might agree with that statement, and to the notion that the entire experience - the preparation, hard work, the emotional ups and downs and interaction with peers - all combine to make the Culinary Arts Competition a unique training event.

"If I could, I would do this over and over again," she said. "I love it, and I'm coming back next year."