FORT LEE, Va. (March 1, 2012)-A rarity is among the competitive ranks of this year's Military Culinary Arts Competition.

The Fort Lee Culinary Team is prepared to go plate-to-plate with perennial contest stalwarts like Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Carson, Colo., in the 37th iteration of MCAC now under way at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence.

Specifically, the installation is entered in a number of individual categories as well as installation of the year. The latter requires entry into eight specific categories to include armed forces chef and student chef of the year, student team skills and field competitions.

A team from Fort Lee has entered the MCAC only two times in the past six years. All were from the 49th Quartermaster Group, the installation's only Forces Command unit. The 49th has entered this year's team as well. Sgt. 1st Class Alisha Smith is the team's noncommissioned officer in charge. She said when the idea was brought forth to enter a team, her first reaction was, "OMG.

"For one, I've been in the Army 17 years, and this is my first time being the team manager," she said. The other thing is having all of these brand new AIT privates."

Smith's 12-Soldier roster includes eight who have less than 18 months of service. On top of that, several have never worked in a dining facility on a regular basis (the 49th QM Group recently ceded its DFAC to contractors). Furthermore, they are competing in an event that is the largest of its kind in the United States with more than 300 competitors from all branches of service entered this year.

Because of the obstacles and inexperience, Smith said she trained her team with a keen eye on fundamentals.

"It's been like taking your kids to their first day of kindergarten," said the Mississippi native. "That's how I've had to teach the team. Some of them have only been in the Army six months, so inexperience can be a challenge. On the other hand, when they don't know and they're eager to learn, they're easy to teach. And they are all eager to learn."

One of those hungry for a place at the table of knowledge is Pvt. Lee Wilson. Passionate about cooking since he was a boy growing up in Florida, he said the MCAC is a rare chance to demonstrate his talent and increase his skills.

"It's a great opportunity to gain experience and to be around people who have similar values and who are passionate about something that allows you to be so creative," said the 20-year-old.

Wilson will be joined by fellow first-timer Pvt. Tinnaya Merkerson. The 19-year old New Jersey native said she was timid about participating in the competition because "she can't cook" but was forcefully encouraged to join the team. The subtle ultimatum moved her to give it her all and approach the event from a learning perspective.

"I'd rather learn than to win something because once I gain some knowledge, I can use that to win something the next time I'm in the competition," she said.

The MCAC will offer competitors like Merkerson and Wilson much to take in. One of the competition venues, the Post Field House, is traditionally transformed into one big stage complete with a fusion of food aromas, display tables, multiple kitchen setups for the competitors, throngs of curious spectators, an army of roaming culinary personnel clad in their white chef jackets and stern-looking, white-haired judges making observations and scribbling notes.

Spc. Andrea Barnes is one of two Fort Lee team members who have prior experience in the competition. She said the event can be overwhelming for the first-timers but abundant with opportunities to learn.

"I like pastries more than anything else," she said. "So, when I go to the competition, I always try to look for those people who are interested in the same thing and actually have a lot more knowledge or talent so that I can learn like how to do different techniques like sugar works, chocolate sculptures or different plated desserts. That's what I'm doing this year."

Indeed, individual skills may be sharpened but the competition aims for something far beyond the expertise of participants. The overall goal of the MCAC is to improve food service, and that means each participant is a potential force multiplier.

"They won't be the first or last privates to come to the DFAC," said Barnes, referring to those new to the competition. "There will always be someone who comes after them, someone who they can show things to."

That may be a bit much to fathom for the young privates who dominate the Fort Lee team. Smith said the ultimate goal of improving food service will take care of itself. In the meantime, she wants her charges to perform as they've been trained, learn from their experiences and enjoy the event.

"I just want them to have fun and get the experience," she said. "I tell them that every day. Just have fun."