Last March, at a military culinary training center in Fort Lee, Va., chef and army sergeant Sarah Deckert was handed a basket of ingredients — buffalo tenderloin, red snapper, tiger prawns, and pheasant. She was given 30 minutes to plot a menu incorporating the items, and three and a half hours to craft a four-course meal.

With the clock ticking and five judges surveying her every move, Deckert got the dessert out of the way first-chocolate cake with cinnamon ice cream-followed by a soup course f eaturing potatoes, parsnips, and pheasant. Then came the main events: an appetizer of pan-seared fish with prawns in a buttery blood-orange sauce and a tenderloin entree with a red wine jus. The judges saluted her winning meal by crowning Deckert Armed Forces Chef of the Year—the first time that a woman has received the honor.

Already a classically trained chef before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 2010, Deckert, 30, most recently served as an enlisted aide to—and cooked for—Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the U.S. Army surgeon general. Now a food service sergeant for the army, Deckert took second place in the American Culinary Federation's National Chef of the Year competition in July.

What's it like being the first woman to win the Armed Forces competition?

The culinary field is definitely male-dominated, especially in the military. So it's good to break those barriers. [But] it also makes me want to show that I've earned it, being at this level.

How did you get into cooking? My parents divorced when I was 7 and for a time we lived with my grandparents. I loved being in the kitchen with my grandmother. We used to make pie using fresh fruit from her strawberry patch and the cherry and apricot trees in her yard.

You worked for the army surgeon general. Did she always insist on healthy meals?

She's a foodie, so I experimented and had fun, but her focus was always nutrition. My favorite goto was a maple-glazed spiced salmon that she really loved. (Get the recipeatparade.com/salmon.)

My dad was an army cook during World War II, and he used to brag about his oxtail stew. How has military cooking changed since those days?

That's still made today! Some things won't ever go away. Still, we've had to adapt to nutritional needs and dietary restrictions. And as the nation grows more diverse, soldiers have gotten more comfortable experimenting with different foods and flavors.

But you still see the traditional choices, especially out in the field—the chili mac and the beef stew. Those kinds of dishes are a big hit, and when you're deployed it's also about taking care of soldiers and giving them comfort. What's next for you? I'm working on my master's in nutrition with the goal of becoming a registered dietitian. And I'll keep competing because there are always more barriers to break. If there's an opportunity out there available to me, I want to take it.

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