Counting months on your fingers is the surest sign of being new to the Army.

Spc. Khayla Talley from Fort Carson, Colo., did just that to figure out she’s been in for a year-and-a-half. So has Spc. Anterio Jackson, a fellow culinary specialist from Fort Campbell, Ky. His teammate Pfc. Akim Barry beats them both with just 14 months.

Yet here they all are, competing for the first time in the 45th Annual Joint Culinary Training Exercise at MacLaughlin Fitness Center. It’s an opportunity to mingle with seasoned veterans of their field; to receive tips from American Culinary Foundation judges; and to witness the pride of their profession.

Although 19-year-old Barry has experienced the least, he is Fort Campbell’s representative in the Student Chef showdown.

“Being a cook was second choice to me,” he admitted. “I started out wanting to be a combat engineer, but my step-dad talked me out of that. So, I chose this, which didn’t hurt because it came with a bonus. I had always cooked for my siblings, as my mom was single and worked a lot, so I handled what I needed to.”

His comfort with “handling stuff” at mealtime has paid off. He earned his spot as student chef because of how well he handles mystery baskets – essentially a random assortment of ingredients like the proteins in an entrée with which a chef must craft a competition-worthy dish in a limited amount of time.

“Shortly after I made the team, I was told I was most likely the student chef candidate because of my skills, and that I was doing a lot of mystery baskets against the professionals. The baskets are fun. I’m going against people who I know are better than me, and I can learn from them.”

A sense of confidence is detected as Barry talks about his efforts to help teammates strengthen their skills for the competition. He also got the nod to serve as an apprentice for Sgt. Anthony McKoy when he competed in the Armed Forces Chef of the Year event Friday. Barry has been networking and observing – anything that would give his team an edge in Tuesday’s team competition followed by his appearance as a Student Chef on Wednesday.

“I feel great. I feel we put in enough training and hard work that we should be fine,” he confidently confirmed. “When I got here, my nerves were everywhere and I was anxious to start, but the first event eased the apprehension and I know what to expect now.”

Hailing from Albany, Ga., Spc. Jackson knew he wanted to be in the Army ever since he was a little boy, and when he got a little older, he realized he wanted to be a military cook. Like Barry, he had prepared meals for his family and became comfortable around a stove.  His ability to strategize through mystery ingredient challenges won him a spot on the Fort Carson team.          

“The first basket I had was a salad, and I have grown a lot since then,” he said with a proud smile. “We started training in September, and we’ve been going at it ever since.”

A hint of JCTE’s impact on young chefs is detected in Jackson’s next thought.

“I’m pretty confident because of the training and the late-night practices,” he said. “We’re not really worried about the competition, we’re just ready to get the job done.”

Precision and fielding possible curveballs was the focus of the Fort Campbell team’s training on the day of Jackson’s interview. They were working on knife skills, chicken and fish fabrication, and pastry and tart dough. He and his teammates sliced potato-after-potato to perfect the “Tourne-cut” technique. They painstakingly julienned carrots into 1/8-by-2 inch widths and lengths, with Barry correcting angles and straightening knives as they went.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot since I’ve been here,” Jackson stressed. “And I’ve learned to be humble, too, because there’s always someone better than you here. I’m getting out and networking a lot, so it’s been a great experience.”

Fort Carson’s Spc. Talley chose what she wanted to do in the Army at her Military Entrance Processing Station, and she hasn’t regretted it since.

“They told me cook was what they had, and I said, ‘Alright, I’ll do it,’” Talley elaborated. “I love food, and I’ve always loved cooking, I just never thought I’d make it a job, especially since they told me the hours are horrible and you can love it or hate it.”

The Soldier confirmed the atrocities of work schedules, but noted how it was counteracted by “meeting a lot of really cool people” and learning every day at her job.

“Being selected for this team is phenomenal,” she said. “I’m learning a lot more than just the basics, like why you mix things certain ways. It is helping me develop my palate, and I’m being introduced to more advanced techniques.”

Talley then reflected on her family’s reaction to the JCTE appearance.

“Literally, all of them are surprised that I’m even a cook. My skills in the kitchen back home were always a little ‘meh,’” she said wagging her fingers in the air. “Now that they know how far I’ve come, they’re all anxious for me to make dinner for them when I go home.”

She’ll have a trick up her sleeve for a post-meal treat as well.

“Surprisingly, I’m on the dessert dish this week, which I never thought I’d be since required ingredients and baking are so precise, and I’ve always struggled with that,” Talley said. “However, I’ve learned that I can excel at it, and I’m really shocked. It’s another skill I can now feel comfortable doing.”

Summing up her JCTE experience, Talley said she’s excited to be here with her team and feels it’s a great situation for everyone involved.

“We’re only on day three of the competition, but I’ve already met some really awesome people from other posts and other countries. JCTE is everything they said it would be. It’s meant to bring us together; to see how everyone works together; to see how the other branches do things; and to really see that we are one team, one fight. That’s what I’ve witnessed so far.”

JCTE concludes Friday with an awards ceremony in the Lee Theater. Photos and video from the competition are available at www.facebook.com/ArmyCulinary.