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Army team takes top honors in "Battling Chefs" cook-off

By TAD SOOTER | Kitsap Sun | Published: May 10, 2015

BREMERTON, Wash. (Tribune News Service) -- Drizzled in wasabi aioli and perched atop delicate cucumber slices, Casey Wagner's crab cakes looked like a dish plated by a practiced chef.

Wagner, it turned out, was not exactly a chef.

"I'm an old-style bilge mechanic," the Navy machinist's mate 1st class said proudly.

Wagner spends most his days tending to systems aboard the submarine USS Maine. But on Saturday morning the amateur cook traded his machinist's uniform for an apron and served up toasted-sesame crab cakes from a booth at the 67th Military Culinary Arts Competition, part of the Armed Forces Festival.

The event gives some of the region's best military chefs -- and the occasional mechanic -- the chance to showcase their culinary talent in front of a wider audience at Olympic College. Teams from a dozen military commands across the region enjoyed camaraderie and friendly competition, while fellow service members, and members of the public, sampled their dishes.

Wagner was soaking in the kind of affirmation he doesn't always get from his day job.

"We're here for a prize," said Wagner, whose crab cakes would later claim second in the appetizers category. "But realistically I'm already happy, because I'm seeing people enjoy what I make. That's the best part, especially for someone who's not really a cook."

Nine teams entered the day's headline event, an "Iron Chef"-style cooking challenge called "Battling Chefs." The teams had an hour to prepare and plate a meal incorporating a list of secret ingredients (key ingredients this year included duck and mussels).

The kitchen used for the challenge was closed to the public, but the cooking action was streamed live on monitors inside the Bremer Student Center, giving "Battling Chefs" a reality TV feel. The remainder of the student center was crowded with tables where chefs presented steaming pots of chili, ribs and wings, alongside artfully-arranged garnishes, appetizers and desserts.

One popular stop was a booth manned by Culinary Specialist 2nd Class Richard LeBlanc and teammates from the USS Nimitz. LeBlanc had whipped up a batch of buffalo barbecue wings stuffed with cabbage, bacon and red peppers.

"It's food inside of food; it's a complete meal," he said. "And there's bacon. Who doesn't love bacon?"

The judges apparently loved bacon. LeBlanc's creation took the wings category.

While winning is nice, LeBlanc said culinary competitions allows military chefs a fun break from their regular duties. His typical day in the kitchen begins at 4:30 a.m. for breakfast preparation, and finishes at 6:30 p.m. after dinner is served.

The competition gave him a chance to stretch himself creatively.
"It's different," LeBlanc said of the cooking competition. "It lets us show off our skills."

The chefs can also learn from each other as they compete. At a nearby table, Culinary Specialist 2nd Class Michael Taxiera from the USS Nebraska gingerly assembled Asian sriracha lettuce wraps.

Taxiera worked in the restaurant industry before entering the Navy six years ago. He's still picking up skills from fellow military chefs.

"It brings together people from all types of culinary specialties and services," he said. "It's great to test your skills."

While the Navy was well represented, it was the Army team from Joint Base Lewis-McChord that won both all-around honors and the "Battling Chefs" competition, judged by a panel of military brass, chefs and dignitaries. They served up steamed mussels, seared duck accompanied by cream of roasted red pepper soup and a sweet potato hash.

Army team members Sgt. Chantha Roeun and Sgt. Andrew Shurden weren't ready to boast after their victory -- not with the level of talent that surrounded them.

"Humility is a good thing," Roeun said.

"These competitions will keep you humble," Shurden added.

(c) 2015 the KitsapSun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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