One of the biggest culinary competition in the United States just got bigger.

The U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition, in its 33rd iteration, will feature nearly 200 contestants from the U.S. Army, Marine Corps and Coast Guard – and for the first time, the Navy and Air Force – in an event designed to showcase and improve military food service skills.

The competition is scheduled March 1-14 at the Army Center of Excellence, Subsistence.

In past years, the event has drawn hundreds of spectators and the attention of media outlets such as The Food Network and NBC’s “Today Show.”

The spotlight is expected to shine again this year on the military chefs when they converge upon Fort Lee from installations around the world. They will go plate-to-plate in more than 40 categories to include contests for the best team and individual events such as wedding cakes, cold hors d’ oeuvres and ice art.

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert Sparks, ACES culinary skills division chief, is charged with organizing and coordinating the competition. He said this year’s event is special because all of the services are competing, and that speaks of a new era in the competition and in military food service.

“I look forward to mingling with the other services,” he said. “We are more of a joint activity, and we need all branches of the service to fight the war. It’s a great opportunity for the exchange of ideas.”

That exchange may be an underlying factor in plans over the next five years to bring all food service training under a Joint Center of Excellence, Subsistence, to be located at Fort Lee. Currently, the Army and Marine Corps are the only branches of service with all of their food service training at Fort Lee.

The prospect of competing with so many other military members looms large for Soldiers like Fort Lee’s own Pvt. Christopher Pace.

“I’m a little anxious, a little nervous, but I think I can get through it,” said the 506th Quartermaster Company Soldier.

Pace and five other Soldiers from the 49th QM Group will comprise Fort Lee’s entry into the competition. They are led by Sgt. Niecey Stroud and Sgt. 1st Class Victor Cabrera, who said participation in a competition is critical to helping Soldiers get better at their craft.

“It’s tradition,” he said, “but it is very important to the development of a food service Soldier, especially from an artistic aspect.”

Indeed, the competition is not only meant to recognize the skills and talents of those involved but serves as a rare training opportunity in which military food service personnel can interact with world-class culinary professionals.

“We bring in judges and instructors from England, Sweden and other countries,” said Sparks. “They are familiar with the latest international trends and can provide the participants with valuable feedback during the competition.”

Many of the judges are members of the World Association of Chefs’ Societies and the American Culinary Federation.

Aside from the various aspects of the competition itself, coordinating and organizing the event is a huge undertaking. Not only does it involve accommodating the many participants, judges and other personnel, but ensuring that each competitor and team have the food items they need to compete.

That job falls to ACES’ Staff Sgts. Debbie King and Barbara Davis. They are responsible for compiling the numerous requests for rations, sorting them, shopping and storing them.

“It takes a lot of effort in trying to get the participants what they want for the competition,” she said.

King and Davis began their efforts in January, shopping about three times a week. Davis estimates that they have bought more than 6,000 pounds of beef, chicken and pork; 300 pounds of chocolate; and 3,500 pounds of produce.

She’s also shopped for the unusual – items like cow’s tongue and rattlesnake.

“I couldn’t find rattlesnake,” she said of one shopping excursion, “so I had to get python.”

The support of the event doesn’t end there. Fort Lee will provide lodging for many of the participants, and also other logistical support that will require the help of more than 200 Soldiers.

Fort Lee has held similar service-level events within the past year. They include the U.S. Army’s “Best Warrior Competition” and the Military Working Dog and Warrior Police Challenge.