Cooking with Champions

Photo By Sgt. Therese Prats | U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Michael Watts, a food service specialist and Marine Enlisted Aide stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, plates a dish during the Armed Forces Senior Chef of the Year Mystery Basket Competition at the Joint Culinary Training Exercise at Fort Lee, Virginia, March 3, 2023. The 47th annual JCTE is administered by the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence, where more than 200 military chefs from around the globe, to include all branches of the U.S Armed Forces and international military teams, showcase their talents and improve readiness by promoting military culinary excellence. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Sgt. Therese Prats)

FORT LEE, Va.— U.S. Marine Corps food service specialists are responsible for fueling the Armed Services most elite fighting force. From catering thousands of U.S. Marines at the base chow hall to providing the necessary nutrition Marines need in the field, food service specialists are imperative to any operation. Their duties include sanitation, temperature management, and of course cooking! However, some food service specialists strive for more than the mundane daily routine. Marines who refine their culinary expertise and aspire to develop their craft, receive the opportunity to compete in the annual Joint Culinary Training Exercise.

The JCTE is the largest joint service culinary competition in the United States and is created to showcase military chefs stationed from around the world. The annual exercise is accredited by the American Culinary Federation, deeming it as a momentous opportunity in the contestants culinary careers. In order to qualify for the JCTE, Marines must demonstrate passion, resilience, expertise in their field, and the drive to win an award for their military branch.
U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Michael D. Watts, a food service specialist and Marine Enlisted Aide with Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic, Marine Forces Command, Marine Forces Northern Command stated, “We look for people who are willing to learn, people who uphold Marine Corps standards while having creativity and knowledge.”

This year’s JCTE consists of demanding categories such as Hot Food Kitchen, Team Buffet, and other strenuous cooking related events. Each challenge has its own designated rules and regulations to test a chef’s adaptability. Pastry Chef of the Year assesses cooking fundamentals and culinary artistry whereas the Nutritional Hot Food Challenge requires a four-course meal consisting of nutritional fundamentals and flavor balance; all while maintaining 1,000 calories or less.

“The competition is an adrenaline rush, in all honesty,” Watts recalled, “it’s a test of what you know, and when you are in the competition there is no room for practice or error; you are showcasing the abilities you have and that’s it.”
The 2023 Marine Corps Team consisted of Marines stationed from all across the globe, with each individual varying in experience. From the senior Marine having 17 years of service to the youngest only at 2 years of service, the wide array of skill sets were unfathomable. The Marines spent hours cooking prior to the competition in hopes to pass on their culinary expertise to one another.
“We only had three weeks to prepare for every scenario that could be thrown our way,” Watts continued, “We worked together as a team to make sure each practice cook was successful because once you go into the event the team can’t help you anymore, that’s on you.”

This year the U.S. Marine Corps took one bronze, one silver, and two gold placement medals. The Director of Joint Culinary Center of Excellence selected U.S. Marine Corps GySgt. Michael D. Watts and Sgt. Jonathan SanchezBermeo, a food service specialist and Marine Enlisted Aide with 8th and I Barracks, to join the United States Armed Forces Culinary Arts Team in the Culinary Olympics. The Culinary Olympics is an international culinary arts competition which will be held in Germany, February of 2024, allowing the Marines to further their careers and culinary practice once more!

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