FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- After a grueling week of chopping, slicing, dicing and cooking, Fort Drum food service specialists brought home 36 medals from the 37th U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition at Fort Lee, Va.

The 15-Soldier Fort Drum Culinary Arts Team was one of 22 teams representing all military services, competing to show their skills and vying for bragging rights.

The team brought home a total of four gold, 14 silver and 18 bronze medals in events like junior and senior chef; live cooking for pastry, cake decorating and savory dishes; nutrition; team field cooking; student skills; cold table display and ice carving.

Team members were selected during the post dining facilities' Thanksgiving presentations last November, according to Sgt. 1st Class Leonard Phillips, team manager. He added that this year's team has been the best in his 10 years as an Army cook.

"This is my last year," he said. "This has been my best team. We've taken the most medals -- 36 this year. Overall, it was good. Everybody … received a medal, and that was my goal."
Phillips said he chose to not compete in any events this year to allow him time to help some of the newer cooks.

"It wasn't about me walking across the stage; it was about my Soldiers all placing in the competition. I achieved my goal," he said.

Staff Sgt. Carlos Quiles, team captain, said it took long hours to make it through the tough competition. As the team captain, Quiles ensured the Soldiers were on time and on track for their events.

Quiles also said this year's competition taught him valuable lessons to help the team succeed next year. Specifically, he learned how crucial timing is during live events.

"There's not a lot of down time. Your timing has to be impeccable, and you have to be ready," he said.

The competition wasn't entirely stressful -- when the cooks weren't competing, they were able to learn techniques and skills during classes during the week, Phillips added.

Spc. Iris Trejo said the experience was "really fun." She participated in student skills, a pastry cook-off and junior chef of the year events.

"I learned a lot," Trejo said, adding that she has aspirations to earn a culinary arts degree. "The culinary arts competition is probably the best experience I've had as a cook yet.

"It's not as easy as it looks," she continued. "Time management is important, but there are a lot of great people around to help you out."

Although team member Spc. Jaime Contreras came into the Army with professional experience under his belt, even skilled cooks can learn something new. Before he joined the Army, he worked as a soux chef for Society Café in Las Vegas.

Contreras said he learned more about the food showpieces. Some of the events required the cooks to prepare dishes ahead of time and cover them in a food-grade gelatin to preserve it for several days. Contreras said that was a "really cool" technique he learned.

While the event was a team competition, it tested cooks individually too, he added.

"(I enjoyed) talking to the other chefs out there, collaborating and learning different recipes," Contreras said.