Tick tock, tick tock.
The official competition clock counted down.
The sweet scent of cooked sea bass and sizzling chicken enveloped the air of a large conference space in the Hyatt Regency hotel in New Orleans, a few blocks from the historic French Quarter.
Five cooks in traditional chef attire moved quickly like a well-orchestrated ballet around a recently constructed kitchen space.
Steam from a pot of boiling water condensed on the cooks who were already soaked in sweat.
Tick tock, tick tock.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Kellie Lundy, a culinary specialist from Yorktown, Virginia, anxiously garnished the salad course with its finishing components. She had prepared for this moment for the past three weeks.
“30 seconds!” called out one of her teammates.
“30 seconds heard!” she called back without hesitation.
“This event here is one of the most stressful situations I’ve ever been in,” Lundy said.
Lundy was one of the five Coast Guard culinary specialists who had advanced to the final round of the American Culinary Federation Student Team Championships. This was the first time the Coast Guard competed at the national level since the ACF allowed a military team to compete for this prestigious title.
“It’s not just our families watching,” Lundy said. “It’s not just the crowd. We are now representing the entire armed forces for our country. So, it’s big. It’s stressful. But, it’s so much fun at the same time.”
As the final minutes counted down, Lundy looked nervously towards Petty Officer 3rd Class Jerry Brown, the culinary specialist preparing the dessert course.
“We were worried he wouldn’t have time to pull the sugar,” Lundy said anxiously.
“Keep moving, keep going, keep going, don’t be late, don’t be late,” Brown said. “If you don’t get out on time your plate better be perfect because you’re going to lose points.”
With seconds left on the clock, Brown finished the French style doughnut and chickory barvarios dessert.
“As soon as he pulled it and he put them down, I started crying and I had to put my head down,” Lundy said. “I was so happy.”
The team members congratulated themselves. The competition that took them from Yorktown was coming to a close, and they would soon learn how they did at an award ceremony the following night.
Though the chefs were excited to learn the results, they knew making it to the final round was an incredible feat in itself. It was a testament to their motivation and the quality of Coast Guard culinary training.
“It feels great to represent the Coast Guard on a stage like this and the U.S. military in general,” Brown said.
For many of the team members, the competition was an opportunity to challenge misconceptions about military cooks.
“The driving motivation is to be here and to really surprise the people and to show them what we’re actually capable of,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher Powell, a Coast Guard culinary team member. “Most people think we open soup cans and cardboard boxes, and most people don’t even know what the Coast Guard is.”