Don't you wish you had these military chefs in your chow hall?

More than four decades later, the military’s premier culinary training event has evolved into something much greater than its meager beginnings.

It is larger — more than 200 competitors compete yearly, substantially more than the few dozen who competed at the start.

Contestants compete in a past Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training event. MCACTE, in its 43rd year, endeavors to improve the skills of military food service personnel thereby enhancing force readiness. (U.S. Military photo)

It is more inclusive — over the years, the Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force and foreign countries have all thrown their hats into the competitive ring.

Its appeal to spectators combined with the camaraderie, spirit and competitiveness of participants has made it one of the most unique military training opportunities in the Defense Department, despite ongoing budget restraints, said Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 J.D. Ward.

“This event is healthy despite a fiscal climate of zero growth,” said Ward, the coordinator for the annual Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event scheduled at Fort Lee, Virginia, March 4-9. “We’ve had to reduce the size of the competition and the overall expenditures in order to remain fiscally responsible, but it still remains the largest culinary competition in North America.”

The MCACTE, in its 42nd year, was created specifically to improve the culinary skills of participants — and thus the readiness of the force — in an environment that is intensely competitive yet nurturing and educational. Featured among the American Culinary Federation-sanctioned events, are the Armed Forces and Student Chef of the Year competitions as well as a team event pitting installations and services against one another to determine an overall winner.

In addition to the competitive events that will be ongoing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, MCACTE features live cooking demonstrations, celebrity appearances and food displays that can be described as varied and illustrative.

Furthermore, the popular Military Hot Food Kitchen Challenge — the event in which the public is invited to try out gourmet-inspired meals prepared during the competition — will make a return appearance. The meals are $5.55 and seats are available on a first-come basis.

A pair of master chefs from the American Culinary Federation judge a meal at the 41st Annual Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event (MCACTE). The MCACTE is the largest culinary competition in North America, and has been held since 1973. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan McDonald/Released).

Among the changes to this year’s event is a change in venue. The MacLaughlin Fitness Center here will accommodate this year’s competition rather than the Post Field House, which has hosted portions of MCACTE for more than a decade. The change is expected to have minimal impact on the competition from a competitor and spectator perspective, Ward said.

Among the differences this year include a change in cooking facilities used in the Military Hot Food Kitchen Challenge. The mobile trailers that were standard in the event will not be used this year, but competitors still employ the same cooking equipment. Diners may not even notice the change, Ward said.

“In fact, it may be easier for them to better observe competitors’ cooking,” he said.

Ward, who first competed in MCACTE as a private first class, said the competition is full of highlights, but from his viewpoint, the student team of the year event is the most inspirational.

“These are groups of less-experienced, younger soldiers competing and demonstrating advanced and fundamental cooking skills for the judges,” he said. “It’s a wonderful event because it exposes young service members to the profession in an entirely different light.”

The winners in the student event go on to compare their skills against regional winners at the American Culinary Federation competition in July.

“It’s an opportunity for those young chefs to compete against their civilian counterparts and demonstrate to the civilian sector just how talented military culinarians can be,” Ward said.

The student chef of the year winner also will go on to compete at the same ACF event with the possibility of representing the United States at a 2018 international event in Switzerland.