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By Amy Perry

FORT LEE, Va. (March 1, 2012) -- Twenty-four military chefs got the annual all-service Culinary Arts Competition sizzling Sunday as they competed for Armed Forces Chef of the Year.

The cooking event, which earns the top chef one of the most prestigious individual titles of the overall competition, pits chefs against a mystery basket. They are required to cook a four-course meal for four people and do it all in four hours.

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Russell Campbell is the current competition coordinator, and he said a lot of planning goes into the mystery basket each year.

"There are certain requirements we have to have -- a fish item, a protein like a beef, lamb or poultry and we normally have a shellfish," he said. "We try to make sure we don't have reoccurring ingredients from the last few years. We send the list to the lead judge, and he tweaks it. We make sure we can provide the ingredients and that they are in season. That's one of our constraints is ensuring we can get the fresh vegetables and fruits."

Even with a list of ingredients, the chefs can be surprised when they check out their items for the first time.

"The first thing I saw was that striped bass -- it must have been 40 pounds -- and that was a daunting thing to see right out of the gate," said Sgt. Matthew Flemister, who is an individual competitor from Fort Myer. He is the enlisted aide to Lt. Gen. William J. Troy, the director of Army staff.

Flemister said there were other unusual ingredients this year, like salsify (a white root vegetable), white yams and baby fennel.

"They threw a lot of stuff our way in the mystery basket, like different grains that take a long time to cook and lots of different proteins," said Flemister, who competed in the same event three years ago and earned a gold. "They did a good job putting it together. It really makes you pause and think when you are writing the menu."

Navy Chief Culinary Specialist Derrick Davenport, who is on a team made up of enlisted aides from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has competed for several years, but he said the event never gets any easier.

"I think the mystery baskets get harder every year," he said. "Even though you have a game plan when you go in, when you see those surprise items, you think 'I wasn't counting on that.' Then, you just try to work through your scenarios."

Many chefs are like Davenport and Flemister and have competed for Armed Forces Chef of the Year numerous times, and that's all part of the competition, said Campbell.

"The military chefs are continually challenging themselves to make themselves better," he said. "That's what the competition is really about -- training -- and all the chefs learning new skills or techniques as they go along throughout the competition."

While the debut event of the annual showcase of the military food service profession is difficult, Davenport said it's also very exciting.

"It kind of opens up the whole competition. You jump right in," he said. "After you do senior chef, it all gets a little bit easier."

Medals for the event were announced Monday. Out of the 24 competitors, seven silver medals, 10 bronze medals and seven honorable mentions were awarded. The top chef, who is one of the silver medalists, will be named in an awards ceremony March 9, 10:30 a.m., at the Lee Theater.