There was a familiar air as soldiers busily prepared lunch at the Provider's Cafe on Fort Bragg on Tuesday.
As they have once a week since May, soldiers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division Sustainment Brigade dining facility prepared the same lunch menu -- prime rib, creamy chicken piccata and more -- as they readied to feed hundreds of Fort Bragg soldiers.
As they have each week, the soldiers were watched closely for any mistakes while being graded on food preparation, safety, taste and display.
But while previous weeks have featured inspections by dining facility leaders, these grades were part of an ongoing competition to find the best cooks the Army has to offer.
In what could either be the dining facility's "final exam" or a stepping stone to an Army-wide competition, the Provider's Cafe competed in the 50th Philip A. Connelly Awards on Tuesday.
Officials from the 406th Army Field Support Brigade were on hand to grade the soldiers against four other dining facilities named the best on their respective installations.
The competition looks at a long list of criteria, including the appearance and attitude of soldiers, food preparation and quality, food safety and administrative tasks.
The team from the Fort Bragg-based 406th has already conducted similar inspections at Fort Drum, New York; Fort Stewart, Georgia; Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, according to Chief Warrant Officer 4 Luis Aviles, food service advisor for the brigade which oversees approximately 40 percent of all of the Army's dining facilities -- including all of them in the eastern United States.
Aviles said the Connelly Awards were a tough competition and that the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division Sustainment Brigade could be proud of making to the semifinals.
In the coming weeks, Aviles and another inspector will compare the results of visits to all five installations before naming a winner that will go on to compete at the Army level next Spring.
That decision won't be easy, Aviles said.
This year's competition is very close, he said.
But one thing the Fort Bragg soldiers have on their side is history.
In the modern history of the competition, no installation has performed better than Fort Bragg in the Connelly Awards.
In the last 10 years, Fort Bragg units have claimed the title of best dining facility or best field kitchen a dozen times. They have been runner up in one of those categories three times.
"For some of us, it's 'been there, done that,'" said Sgt. 1st Class Danica Foster, manager of the Provider's Cafe dining facility.
Foster is competing in a Connelly competition for the sixth time, but it's her first at the helm of a dining facility. She said others on her staff have competed and won the competition in years' past.
That experience comes in handy when it comes to preparing for the competition, she said. But nothing can replicate the competition itself -- when everyone on the team strives for perfection.
"Nothing prepares you for today," she said. "I just hope it highlights the expertise of my personnel."
Foster said the competition was important because it highlights the good work soldiers do in food service, while also giving soldiers something to be proud of.
To reach this stage in the competition, the 82nd Airborne Division Sustainment Brigade dining facility was named best in the 82nd Airborne Division, then won a competition to earn the title of best dining facility among the 11 on Fort Bragg.
"For a year, we get to be the best," she said of representing Fort Bragg in the Connelly competition. "It's good bragging rights."
Foster's more experienced soldiers kept their younger counterparts focused as inspectors graded the team during breakfast and leading into the lunch rush.
Sgt. Ryan Pressley has been with the brigade since February, but competed and won the 2012 Connelly prize as part of a different unit.
She said coping with the pressure of a Connelly competition doesn't get any easier with experience.
"It's never easier," she said.
On Tuesday, Pressley oversaw soldiers in the bakery, supervising the creation of tarts, peach cobbler and German chocolate cake.
She said the experience, win or lose, could be good for the soldiers in the long run.
"I hope it motivates them to keep striving," Pressley said. "To do bigger and better things."
Foster said the dining facility has cooked the same menu each week for several months in preparation for the competition. And she and others didn't hold back in their criticism.
"Every week they were pretty beat on," she said, "so they know what to expect."
As they've practiced, they've grown, Foster said.
"They've developed and matured so much, it's unbelievable," she said. "I'm definitely proud of them."
But Aviles said the soldiers will have to do more than be perfect for one day to win the Connelly.
The competition is designed to recognize sustained food service excellence, he said as he poured over the dining facilities records for the month of July.
"It's about training, training, training," Aviles said. "We look at everything. We will find out if somebody is not doing the right thing."
Aviles is no stranger to the competition.
As a warrant officer assigned to the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Bragg in the early 2000s, he helped the brigade win three straight Army-wide Connelly Awards at the very site where the Provider's Cafe dining facility now stands.
This year's competition is one of the most competitive Aviles has ever seen. But, he said the real winners would be the soldiers who eat at the finalist facilities at Fort Bragg, Fort Drum, Fort Campbell, Fort Stewart and Eglin Air Force Base.
"The ones that benefit are the customers," he said.
--This article is written by Drew Brooks from The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.