Military chefs showcase their culinary skills during annual training exercise

By Amelia Levin

For nearly a half a century, The Joint Culinary Center of Excellence in Fort Lee, Va., has been training and certifying (via the ACF) budding and experienced culinarians in the United States Armed Forces. 

The Center’s Joint Culinary Training Exercise (JCTE)—now the largest military culinary competition in North America—has been held every year since inception, except for in 1991 and 2003, during deployment for Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

On March 6-13 at the Fort Lee Field House, the Center hosted its 45th competition, complete with the usual scene of live cooking events, elaborate food displays, ice sculptures, pastries, wild game, edible centerpieces and more—all open to the public for viewing and tasting, with the exception of the Chef of the Year competition, which was moved to the first day of the event. Last year, about 220 military personnel from all branches of the military competed, and their levels of expertise ranged from Certified Culinarian (CC) to advanced culinarians, sous chefs, pastry chefs, executive chefs and budding line cooks. 

“The JCTE allows participants to showcase their superior culinary skills that they may not otherwise get the chance to show civilians, so they are very excited to be a part of the event,” says Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Christopher Reaves, executive chef at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence. Reaves doesn’t compete himself, but he oversees the event to make sure “all the gears are moving.” 

“It’s a lot of work and the teams put in many hours, but the feedback they get from the public and the judges, even if they don’t medal, is so important to the participants,” Reaves adds. “That’s why we emphasize that this is an ‘exercise,’ or an opportunity for culinary advancement, rather than just a typical competition.” 

During the week-long event, chef teams from various branches of the military participate in a variety of these “competitions,” including a cold buffet display, pastry challenges, a nutrition-based challenge, and even an international cook-off that this year will involve Team USA as well as teams from Germany and France. 

A little history: the JCTE wasn’t always available for all of the U.S. Armed Forces, or even for international military members, as it is now. In 2008, the Army Chef of the Year competition was changed to the Armed Forces Chef of the Year and chefs from all branches of service became eligible to compete for highly coveted awards. In 2009, The Army Center of Excellence officially became the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence, further integrating chefs and culinarians from each branch. It was in 2013 that the Center’s main event name changed to JCTE. Today, the Center offers both entry-level training opportunities—individually tailored for each of the military branches—as well as an advanced culinary training program for all branches combined. 

“We follow ACF guidelines when it comes to the competitions, but our rules are a little different,” says Reaves. “We modify everything to fit military style; for instance, the nutritional category is different and we also added a ‘wild card’ category. Like the ACF, we also continue to be very focused on the student chef, which we believe is our future.”

(Originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of National Culinary Review.)