More than 200 military chefs descended upon Fort Lee, VA, on March 8th for the 39th Annual Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event, and 20 entered their kitchens the next day to compete for bragging rights as the 2014 Armed Forces Chef of the Year.
"It is arguably the most prestigious individual award for the culinary training event," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Charles H. Talley Jr., who is heading up this year's competition. "The winner gets bragging rights of being the best chef in the military. There are not many chefs who can claim that title."
The Armed Forces Chef of the Year category features a mystery basket from which competitors have to include portions of each item within one of four courses they prepare for the judges. This year's mystery basket included pheasant, ocean prawns, red snapper and bison tenderloin for its proteins. Other items included sorrel, asparagus, spaghetti squash, eggplant, fingerling potatoes, risotto, blood oranges, oyster mushrooms, kohlrabi, Swiss chard and Gouda cheese. Competitors could also use a variety of ingredients found in the pantries.
"When I generate a mystery basket, I want to be fiscally responsible (products that aren't exorbitant in cost) but I also try to add a few exotic items," said Talley. "These items may be served if they were at the Pentagon, but on the flip side, I included some items one would serve at a galley or dining facility."
One of the more exotic items was the bison tenderloin, a lean cut of meat similar to beef tenderloin but more gamey with a different flavor, said Talley. Another "curveball" he included was the sorrel, which is typically used as an herb, but can be used with other lettuces for an unique salad.
"You have to have a few curveballs in a mystery event," said Talley. "That's a great way to truly assess who is the best. You see what the chef is capable of by what they do with that item."
The mystery basket items are kept close-hold before and during the competition, with only Talley and a purchasing agent knowing the American Culinary Federation, or ACF-certified basket contents.
"We keep it secret because the chefs start at different times, and something as simple as someone seeing a component can give that person an unfair advantage," said Talley.
The mystery basket provides chefs with invaluable training, he continued.
"The mystery basket tests the chef's ability to generate a menu without knowing all of the components in advance and his or her organizational skills," explained Talley. "How are they going to organize their menu to meet their timeline? If they're lacking in a certain skill, it's more apparent. The mystery basket will test their skill set greater than any other category they'll do, because of the unknown."
Three-time competitor Sgt. Sarah Deckert, enlisted aide to Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, commanding general, U.S. Army Medical Command, agreed and said the event has always been the most challenging of those in which she has competed. She also supports the notion that it provides valuable training.
"You absolutely learn a lot," she said. "[In] this type of competition [the] mystery basket is the most you'll ever learn. It is the best way to judge your abilities."
Food Service Specialist 1st Class Jason Rohrs, a member of the Coast Guard team, is competing for his second year, and said the event is a learning experience beyond comparison.
"It's the best training I could possibly get in the Coast Guard or any other type of military school," he said. "It's better than any advanced school. The feedback you get from master chefs—all of them accredited by the ACF—is amazing. You get great tips on things you need to work on."