FORT LEE, VA. – Joe Pacheco set a tray with three dishes carefully down before the judges. His expression, intent and serious, remained unchanged as he was asked who the chef was for these pastries.
"I am," he said quietly.
Out in the hallway, Army Spc. Pacheco, who has done a six-month tour in Iraq as a guard in Mosul and is heading back into the war zone next fall, said he felt the pressure.
"Our team hasn't won any medals yet and I'm under pressure," said the 26-year-old from Ft. Campbell, Ky., who spent six years cooking in a restaurant and attended culinary school before joining the Army. He and more than a dozen other chefs were competing on March 10 for the Junior Chef of the Year Award.
Still, Pacheco said there wasn't anyplace he'd rather be. At the Army Center of Excellence and Subsistence (search) in Ft. Lee, Va. — where all of the Army's chefs are trained — Pacheco is among 175 soldiers competing in the 30th Annual Culinary Arts Competition, a two-week event that ends Friday.
"This is the best experience I've had in the food industry so far," he said. "I would love to do this every year and not go to war."
Like Pacheco, for some soldiers, nothing beats KP duty. But many of the soldiers participating in the cooking tournament have already been to war and will be going back, reminders to all of their first priority.
"That's the tenor of today's Army — we are cooks, but we are warriors first," said Chief Warrant Officer David J. Longstaff, who heads the advanced culinary arts skills course at Ft. Lee, a prestigious class that takes only 12 soldiers from bases around the world each session. Longstaff won a bronze star saving his fellow soldiers during an ambush last year in Baghdad.
Far away from Iraq, he now dons a white coat and offers an encouraging word for each of the potential junior chefs and students who mill about him, soaking up the excitement. Longfellow said the contest allows a period of reprieve, and for many, a window into their futures as professional chefs.
"You can imagine, those who have been to Iraq, two or three times, what it means to be here and do this," said Longstaff. "It's good for morale and for retention."
And good for their talents, he added. They aren't making the Sloppy Joes and boiled potatoes of their grandfather's Army. These men and women, given three ingredients for the Junior Chef competition — crab, chicken and mango — spent more than six hours in the school's kitchens crafting sauces, pastries, soups, souflées, salads, stuffings and other favorites for a three-course meal. They then presented the masterpieces to the judges as delicately as the now-fabled television Iron Chefs.
"The whole image that hash is being served in the military is disappearing on both sides," said Fritz Sonnenschmidt, a master chef from Germany, a retired dean of the Culinary Institute of America (search) and one of the three judges in the Junior Chef competition.
Lou Jones, master chef, member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and 1992 gold medalist in the Culinary Olympics, and John Kinsella, master chef and winner of Her Majesty's Armed Forces Combined Services Medal for services in the culinary profession, joined Sonnenschmidt in the judging.
As seasoned judges, teachers and competitors, no dull sauce or slightly overcooked scallop escaped their scrutiny, and their facial expressions often belied their disapproval. But when the junior chefs, who had already been watched and scored for technique in the kitchens, came before them, they had constructive comments and real advice.
"Being judged and watched is a whole new thing for me," said Pfc. Derek Noble, 20, who hails from Fort Lewis, Wash., and cooks for the Green Berets.
Noble has been to Afghanistan and Thailand in his short military career, and said that cooking is a life-long passion.
Spc. Garret Andrews, 25, won big praises from the judges for his white chocolate soufflé. Before joining the Army, Andrews worked for seven years as an apprentice and cook under a master chef in Florida. He's now based in a finance unit in Europe. "I see this as a passion and a job," he said.
Pfc. Leticia Melo, 23, is stationed in Hawaii, and said she has embraced her experience in Virginia as a way to hone her skills. She added, "Getting out of the routine and doing something different is the best part."
Ft. Lee is home to U.S. Quartermaster School (search), which houses the Army's 49th Quartermaster Corps and trains and deploys the Army's support services, including 5,000 Army and Marine cooks each year. All together, according to Public Information Officer Tim Hale, an average of 22,000 soldiers a year are trained at Ft. Lee in everything from fuel supply to mortuary affairs and textiles. Its soldiers are currently deployed in units in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.
For the competition, however, the base has been transformed. Besides the Junior Chef competition, this culinary arts extravaganza hosts a more rigorous Senior Chef competition, team finals, exhibits, individual events in pastries, hot and cold foods, ice sculptures and demonstrations — all culminating in huge viewings and awards ceremonies at the end of the two weeks.
"It lends credibility" to the military chefs. "You feel like you are a part of a fraternity," by the end of the time here, said Longstaff.
For Pfc. Francisco Elias, 23, it's about whetting his appetite for cooking professionally, and also taking his newfound skills back to his base in Korea.
"They got very experienced chefs here from all over the world — the things you cannot learn in college," he said. "This helps me in the sense that I can learn the experience I need so I can give better meals to the soldiers … I can integrate this knowledge."