FORT LEE, Va. -- After a week-long rehearsal at the Quartermaster School’s Joint Culinary Center of Excellence here July 6-12, several military chefs are in New Orleans this week showcasing their skills at the American Culinary Federation National Convention.

Representing the Department of Defense are a five-member U.S. Coast Guard Team, Army Sgt. 1st Class Marc Susa and Army Spc. Naya Pender. They are the winners of the student team, master chef and student chef categories of the 2018 Joint Culinary Training Event held at Fort Lee in March. They are entered in the same categories at the national convention, and will be pitting their abilities to create delectable flavors, aromas and visual presentations against comparable civilian culinarians from every corner of the country.

The convention offers a “remarkable opportunity” to highlight the military culinary establishment on an individual and collective basis, said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Christopher Reaves, noncommissioned officer in charge of the Advanced Food Service Training Course at JCCoE.

“It’s excellent for them to be able to go and showcase what the military actually has,” he said. “I don’t think the civilian sector realizes the amount of skill and the work ethic these guys put into their training day in and day out.”

The five members of the Coast Guard team – CS3 Christopher Powell, CS1 Jerry Brown, CS3 Jeffery Plotz, CS3 Tristan Cox and CS3 Kellie Lundy – are assigned to Coast Guard Training Base Yorktown. All but one were participants in the team’s win at the JCTE. As relative newcomers to military food service, they all share the sentiment New Orleans is a rare and career-broadening opportunity.

“I’m super-excited about it,” said Plotz, a 26-year-old native of Reedsport, Ore. “It’s a great honor, honestly. It’s really cool to be able to do something I’ve seen other people do; now I get to be a part of it.”

His teammate, CS3 Powell, said the preparations for the national stage has been profound and required much sacrifice.

“It’s been an intense experience for the amount of training and time that we’ve had to dedicate to preparing ourselves compared to our competitors, who professionally train day-in and day-out at their culinary schools,” said the 27-year-old Fallbrook, Calif., native. “(By comparison) we have jobs we have to do on the regular while trying to fit in our training. So, in that aspect, it kind of puts us at a disadvantage, but I think it will surprise people the most if we end up winning the competition.”

The Coast Guard team began training together in February for the JCTE. They have practiced intermittently since then due to military requirements but ramped up preparations over the past three weeks. CS1 Jeffries, assigned to the Washington, D.C. area, helped prepare the team for the JCTE and nationals. He said training has been somewhat of a challenge but the team has some advantages.

“One of our strong points is that you have a level of maturity that comes with them being in the military, and a few of the guys are a couple of years older than average,” he said. “Fortunately, they still fall within the rule you can’t have more than two years’ experience. With age comes maturity, right, so I think that’s going to help them out in being able to take on a ton of responsibility and stay cool, calm and collected in the competition.”

The Student Team National Championship requires entrants to prepare several cold food meals. It is scheduled for July 17-18.

Pender, the National Student Chef of the Year competitor, competed for Team Europe in the JCTE and is assigned in Grafenwoehr, Germany. Known for her maturity and composure, the 22-year-old said the key to a successful performance in the nationals is believing she can do her best.

“Like going into any competition, you have to be confident about it,” said the Ohio native. “You never think about the competitors but how well you can do.”

Pender may face opponents with various levels of experience, but she said the prospect does not cause her any level of uncertainty. She feels she has the proper mindset to be competitive.

“I’m always going in like I’m going to win, but you don’t want to be overconfident; you still want to have confidence in your skills,” she said.

Susa was not available for comment. The Joint Base Lewis-McChord Soldier has earned several accolades as a team member and individual, including enlisted aide of the year.

The JCTE is sanctioned by the American Culinary Federation as part of its long-standing training relationship with the armed forces food service establishment.