FORT LEE — The tables were turned during the Commandant's Challenge at the 39th Annual Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event.
The challenge pairs the commandants of three of Fort Lee's Army specialty schools, and the senior enlisted leader the Transportation Corps, with enlisted soldiers who specialize in the culinary arts, as they go head-to-head in a timed cook-off. The winner of the competition earns a year of bragging rights as top chef of the four schools but has to take orders from their chef guide.
Lt. Col. Luis Rodriguez, director of the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence, said the event allows the officers to see the effort a food service specialist puts into his or her job.
"They see how stressful kitchen work can be," he said.
Rodriguez also said the role reversal made the officers seem more human as they cease being the bosses for a little over an hour.
"They are a line cook, they are acting as an apprentice to the chef, that's why we always call it the human factor of the competition," he said.
The event required competitors to prepare a meal in an hour with 15 minutes given to plate the dish.
Competitors, with the help of their chef guides, are scored on presentation, sanitation, speed and of course, taste. Each competitor also gets thrown the curve ball of a mystery ingredient to level the playing field.
Four judges from the American Culinary Federation evaluate the dishes according to the organization's standards.
This year, Col. Robert Harney, commandant, Army Logistics University; Brig. Gen. John O'Neil, commandant, U.S. Army Quartermaster School; Brig. Gen. John Haley, commandant, U.S. Army Ordnance School; and Sgt. Maj. Cynthia B. Howard, Transportation Corps regimental command sergeant major, donned chef hats and white coats under the pressure of the clock.
They were assisted by the Army's top chefs who have competed internationally against chefs in the armed forces of other countries in culinary competitions.
This is the second year that the event was part of the annual culinary arts competition.
As the competitors were under the gun, a little friendly trash talk was in order as everyone was trying to unseat O'Neil, last year's winner. O'Neil took the win for the Quartermaster School again in this year.
Haley was a little unsure going into the competition.
"I like to cook, but by no means am I a chef. The deck is stacked against me," he joked.
But the 39th Annual Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event isn't all fun and games. The event brings together the Army's top chefs from U.S. military installations to compete in seven events and 450 categories that test culinary skill. Points awarded during the events help determine who wins the Culinary Team of the Year Award.
Budget cuts have reduced the event from two weeks to one, but Rodriguez said the standard was still high as the chefs strived to be the best.