FORT LEE, Va. (March 8, 2012) -- Appearance means a lot in the food service industry.

Ugly food, even if it tastes OK, is more likely to be passed up by picky eaters. It's also a matter of pride and creativity … accomplished cooks view food as an art form that should please the senses as well as the stomach.

That's why a lot of emphasis was placed on plating and table presentations during the 37th Annual Military Culinary Arts Competition that will conclude with a final awards ceremony Friday at the Fort Lee Theater. In one particular event -- Team Buffet/Cold Food -- looks meant everything as participants created elaborate food displays with themes like Captain Hook, Mardi Gras, under the sea and more.

"The smallest details determine the winners here," said Sgt. John Thomas, a member of the culinary team representing Fort Sill, Okla. "The judges want to see the cleanliness of your aspect -- that all of your pieces are well put together, good variety, multiple kinds of cuts, clean lines and straight edges. Cleanliness of the plate is a big thing also. Really, the standard is to be perfect and then improve on it from there."

The competition guidelines for the Team Buffet/Cold Food event read as follows: "Every team must prepare a cold food buffet table (with) a minimum of seven mandatory entries, all with a common theme, and will showcase the team's ability to work together and produce a work of culinary art. These tables are the epitome of beauty, skill and perfection. Included are hors d' oeuvres, plated appetizers, plated desserts, buffet platters and dessert platters. This category demonstrates the differences between cookery and culinary art."

"It takes a lot of hours to get to this point," noted Spc. Ielle Cushionberry, a member of the team from Fort Polk, La., that was toiling over its table early Saturday morning at the Post Field House. The rules stated that they had to be finished and out of the area by 7 a.m. so judges could begin their assessments of the displays. "We have been working at this for the past 24 hours, non-stop," she said. "At this point, it's nothing less than a labor of love. We want it to be perfect."

At a neighboring table, a team of enlisted aides for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was building its table display as well. The showcase included a centerpiece with white lilies erupting from an assortment of glass vases. Hors d'oeuvres and appetizers were being carefully arranged on glass platters under the watchful eye of long-time competitors like Staff Sgt. Billy Daugette and Sgt. Maj. Mark Morgan.

"This is one of those events where the stress can really bring you down," Thomas said. "That's why you have to work together to keep that motivation up. Appreciating those moments when you can step back and say 'I did an awesome job' is important also. And the real payoff of a competition like this is that feeling of accomplishment when you're standing up there with your peers realizing what it means to be part of this team. It's definitely motivating because most of us walk away from this thinking how much more it will take to do better next year."

According to results found on the competition's social media page -- -- forts Stewart and Hood have earned silver medals for their team buffet entry. All others have received bronze medals or an honorable mention. The final day of competition was Wednesday.