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Armed Forces Culinary Arts Event Kicks off With Top Chef Competition

U.S. Army Garrison Fort Lee Public Affairs - Fort Lee, VA

The 42nd annual Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event kicked off Friday with its most prestigious and challenging category – Armed Forces Chef of the Year. The competition is the only one held entirely at the Joint Culinary Training Center – chefs work feverishly to get out a top-notch four-course, four-serving meal to the waiting judges. “Part of why the event is so prestigious is because of the title,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 J.D. Ward, chief of the Advanced Culinary Training Division at the JCTC. “The individual who wins holds the title for 12 months as the chef of the year. In addition, it’s easily the most challenging event.” Ward is in his second year as the show chair for the event, but he is well versed in the training and competitive nature of top military chef category, having competed himself earlier in his career. “It’s a very challenging event,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure on the chefs to create the meal in that short amount of time. Additionally, this event sets the pace for the team of the year event. Once they see the medal they get here, it starts to encourage those teams who are in the running for Culinary Team of the Year.” Part of the challenge is the unknown. Competitors receive a mystery basket – based on American Culinary Federation rules – and get a time to prepare the menu before their short four-hour cooking time starts. This year’s basket included rainbow trout, veal hotel rack, oxtail, smoked turkey neck, canned anchovies, dark chocolate, ancho chili, reblochon (a cheese), sunflower seeds, gooseberry, watermelon, kasha, lobster mushrooms, ramps, golden beets and rhubarb. Staff Sgt. Gabriel Earle, Fort Stewart team, is in his 4th year of competing at this event and said he trained hard for Armed Forces Chef of the Year. “Every year gets a little bit better, and while it doesn’t get easier, your brain clicks a bit more when you see things,” he said. “You learn what to expect and pick up something new every year to bring into the next competition.” After preparing the dishes and sending them off to the judges, the competitors receive critiques of their work from ACF chefs, many of whom judge this competition every year. Earle said he was pleased with his overall critique and that he can’t wait to learn who earned the top title. “Even though it was the worst of my critique of my dishes, the one I’m most proud of is my dessert,” he said. “The only thing in the judge’s critique was about my plating. “In the past, the pastry critique has been horrible,” he continued. “The judges would tell me that half of what I did I should have never done to a dessert. I practiced a lot this year, and I’m getting a lot better at desserts. I was proud to get the critique.” Earle – who is a shift leader at a dining facility at his home station – uses his preparation and the skills he learns during the competition to show Soldiers the opportunities in the culinary arts field. He said that’s the main reason he continues to attend the training event. “I like to teach Soldiers and show them more of what they can do besides being in a dining facility,” he said. “I like to do more than be in a dining facility. I like seeing all the familiar faces – all the others I’ve competed with over the years.” This year, only four chefs earned a silver medal in the event, marking the second year in a row that no chefs earned gold. Earle said he’s proud of his score and thinks it represents what was truly earned. “I think in the past, the ACF may not have judged the military chefs as harshly because they felt like they couldn’t keep up with ACF standards since we don’t work in a restaurant or out in the industry,” he said. “In the past few years, they’ve started grading us against our peers. Even in civilian ACF competitions, there are not a lot of gold medals awarded during a mystery basket challenge.”

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