Kitchen Stadium at the Fort Lee Field House played host March 4 to 12 to the largest culinary competition in the country. What most people don't realize, however, is that it's sponsored by the U.S. Army.
The competition is sanctioned by the American Culinary Federation and features professional chefs as judges. This year marked the 35th annual competition, which has taken place every year since 1973, with the exception of 1991 and 2003 because of Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, respectively. More than 200 competitors from various branches of the military, including the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines, National Guard and Army Reserves, participated in the event.
One competitor was Air Force Airman First Class Megan Milam, 22, of Warren, currently stationed in Langley, Va. Milam is a trainer in the bakery at her base. It was Milam's first time participating not only in the U.S. Army competition but in any culinary competition.
Photos special to the Tribune Chronicle
Air Force Airman 1st Class Megan R. Milam was a competitor at the 35th Culinary Arts Competition which was held recently at Fort Lee, Va.
The competition is one of the largest culinary competitions of its kind in the United States.
One of Milam’s desserts.
"I was scared out of my wits," she said.
Milam became interested in the competition when her food service officer, who was looking for candidates, told her about it.
Because Milam was new to the competition, she picked only one category to compete in - the cold table. While her teammates created other types of food, Milam was responsible for creating six plated desserts. Milam explained that the cold table is not to be eaten but is just for show. "It looks like it would be in a magazine," she said.
Milam also explained that the competition looked a lot like cooking competitions on TV. Each team had its own station, and the competition took place in front of a live audience, with time limits within which competitors had to finish their dishes. Additionally, Milam created her desserts in a building separate from the one in which she presented them to the judges. She had to transport the desserts herself, hoping that nothing would ruin her creations at the last moment.
"It's very stressful," she said, but her efforts paid off. Milam earned a bronze medal at the competition.
When Milam first joined the U.S. Air Force after her high school graduation in 2006, she chose to train in the field of services, which comprises food, fitness, lodging and mortuary. Milam completed six weeks of technical school that covered all four areas, but got to spend only about a week of that in the kitchen. She usually doesn't get to do much creative cooking, since the military has to be practical about food.
"Their main goal is feeding people, not making it pretty," Milam said.
In 2008, Milam won a Hennessy Traveler's Association Award of Excellence. The Hennessy Traveler's Association Educational Foundation supports members of the military who work in hospitality. At the time, Milam was making cheesecake, her specialty, from scratch instead of using pre-made cheesecake.
"I think the cheesecake is what won them over," Milam said. She reports making every kind of cheesecake imaginable, from blueberry amaretto to pumpkin to key lime to peanut butter.
Milam originally became interested in cooking as a child and remembers the first thing she ever cooked: scrambled eggs on the stove. From there, Milam's mother encouraged her interest and taught her to cook other dishes.
"We worked our way up," Milam said. She said her mother was her first and most significant influence.
Milam has been working in food service since she was 15 and has worked as a busser, a waitress and a cook. Milam graduated from Warren Harding High School but attended the Trumbull Career and Technical Center for the restaurant services program, with a specialization in pastries.
Milam's restaurant services instructor at TCTC, Brigitte Gillies, remembers her well, especially the change in Milam when she returned for her senior year.
"She became very focused. She knew exactly what she wanted. Pastry arts became her passion," Gillies said.
Milam would frequently pick her instructor's brain and always wanted to try the hardest recipes.
"She became a delight, an absolute delight," said Gillies.
Milam currently is pursuing a bachelor's degree in business with aspirations of someday becoming a pastry chef and owning her own bake shop.
"I've had this plan since I was 10 years old," Milam said. "I knew I wanted to cook all my life."
She is also considering additional culinary training with a focus in pastries.
Milam is confident that her training and experience will serve her well in her future endeavors.
"I feel like I'll be well-rounded when I open my own business," she said.