By T. Anthony Bell, Fort Lee Public Affairs
FORT LEE, Va. – Preparing a one-course meal in 60 minutes may seem like a simple and easy household task to some.
Producing the same meal, however, during the U.S. Armed Forces’ largest culinary event under the watchful eyes of renowned chefs can be a daunting challenge.
Those were factors that played into the Armed Forces Student Chef of the Year category of the annual Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event that wraps up today after five days of competition.
The category brought together 17 of the military’s most talented student chefs in a competition that featured a wide range of skills showcased in front of a live audience.
Staff Sgt. Quincy Queen, an instructor at the host Joint Culinary Training Center here, said despite the loads of talent on display, it all comes down to know-how.
“The biggest challenge is knowing the fabrication and time management,” said the training event staffer who watched several competitors Monday. “Let’s say it’s a chicken they are preparing. If they haven’t practiced fabricating chicken, that could slow them down. It takes 30-45 minutes to properly cook a chicken.”
That adds up to a considerable chunk of the hour the chefs are afforded to prepare the entire course. That means there is very little room for slipups, added Queen.
“If they don’t fabricate that chicken the right way and get it in the oven, their time will be thrown off,” he said.
Missing the deadline and submitting food not properly cooked are two of the biggest fails of the event, added Queen.
For Spc. Sheah Johnson of Fort Stewart, Ga., culinary team, the deadline loomed like a dark cloud.
“It was a lot of pressure,” said the 21-year old Pennsylvania native, noting the event was her first individual competition. “But I put in a lot of practice, and I hope it shows.”
Johnson prepared chicken roulade stuffed with bleu cheese, bacon and spinach covered with prosciutto in addition to garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed carrot medley. The food was hot and on time, she said.
“I am usually a little less confident when all eyes are on me, but today as soon as I walked back there, it was ‘go’ time,” she recalled.
Spc. K’shynah Greenidge, a 23-year-old representing Joint Team Hawaii, said she loves to cook but admitted one of her weaknesses is doing it in front of people – especially judges. Despite the beads of sweat visible just above her top lip throughout the course of her performance, Greenidge went about her work with confidence and cool.
“I think I did well,” she said.
As of Wednesday morning, only two contestants had been awarded gold medals. Culinary Specialist 3 Sierra Tyler, stationed on the USS Iwo Jima in Mayport, Fla., earned one although she has never entered any competition of this kind. Her accomplishment didn’t surprise her former instructor, CS1 Maureen Go.
“She is very detailed when it comes to cooking, and she takes time to learn everything the instructors gave her,” she said, noting Tyler stuck out on the first day of her class that took place roughly 18 months ago. “It is not a surprise to see how much progress she has made coming into the competition.”
For Tyler, it was the amount of work she put into the endeavor.
“What you put in it is what you get out of it,” said the 21-year-old native of New Mexico. “I really put my heart into it, and put a lot of hours into training.”
Like Johnson, Tyler prepared a chicken roulade but added a mushroom sauce along with a butternut squash puree, tournée potatoes and asparagus with fried parsley.
Tyler said she practiced the dish for two weeks, preparing it “two or three times a day.” She also said she was “super nervous” but was able to put that aside during her performance.
“I honestly didn’t hear anything but my coaches’ voices,” she said.
Pfc. Carlos Cruz, the Fort Riley, Kan., entrant, approached his performance with the same level of focus. The 19-year-old won a gold medal for his pan sauce served underneath Matgion vegetables and seared, stuffed Cornish game hen, tournée potatoes and glazed carrots. His critique by judges was something he could sink his teeth into.
“It was all positive feedback,” he said, “nothing really negative. The thing they said I should work on is making the dish my own by adding spices and different flavors.”
Although Cruz and Tyler were awarded gold medals, their accomplishments don’t indicate how many points they earned, just that they earned enough to earn the medals.
There were six more contestants yet to perform as of Wednesday morning. The entrant with the highest amount of points will be declared the winner. The titleholders will be announced Friday at an awards ceremony scheduled that morning at the Lee Theater.