Helping the Navy make sure its grub is shipshape
By Leslie Bilderback 02/01/2012
About seven years ago, as I was researching a book, I tried to confirm a rumor that the U. S. Navy had the best food service of all the armed forces, making it an excellent training ground for wanna-be chefs. Recruiters were no help, but I was eventually put in touch with a chef who runs a program through the Navy’s department of supply (NAVSUP) called Adopt-a-Chef, which sends civilian chefs into the field to give culinary training. His response to my query was “Why not see for yourself?” A few weeks later I was training cooks (known as culinary specialists) on a Navy salvage ship headed for Guam. I thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but six ships and five bases later, I was sent out again during this past holiday season to the Persian Gulf to join the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarrier.
Three weeks before Christmas I flew to Bahrain, where I boarded a COD (carrier onboard delivery) for a flight to the ship somewhere in the gulf. It was not my first tailhook landing, but I am in no way jaded. The plane can deliver a couple dozen passengers, and it was a full flight, including a handful of new sailors who were not as excited to be there as I was. Strapped into my rear-facing seat, with no window to peer out of, I donned my cranial (a helmet with ear-protecting headphones) and engaged my iPod for the 45-minute flight. When we reached the ship we circled a few times (which, given the COD’s tight turning radius, created a holding pattern reminiscent of a particularly barfy visit to Coney Island). Then the crew waved their arms shouting, “Here we go!” and the plane hit the runway and hooked its cable, bringing us from a cruising speed of around 300 mph to an abrupt arrested landing, also known as a “trap.”
The rush from my landing didn’t let up for the rest of the week. Once on board, my objective was to train as many cooks as possible as they went about their regular duty, serving four meals a day to between 5,000 and 7,000 sailors, pilots, visiting soldiers, marines, airmen, airwomen and assorted dignitaries. I spent each day attached to one of the seven galleys, where I was able to work with individual cooks and focus on specific techniques. For some there was a need to improve the basics, like organization and knife skills. For others it was troubleshooting existing recipes and teaching any new techniques that interested them. This led to production of many classics, including puff pastry and croissants, cured salmon, homemade cheese, cream puffs, salad dressings, consommé, fresh raviolis, French tarte Tatin and melon carving. I was also able to hold seminars on special topics like nutrition, food pairing, menu development and organics.
Giant floating airports like the Stennis are frequent hosts to visiting dignitaries, which may require an intimate tea service with finger sandwiches or a hangar bay converted into a banquet hall, complete with ice statues. As you might expect, there are some highly experienced culinarians on board who have come from coveted posts, including the White House and Camp David. They possess a mastery of organization that is the envy of chefs and Container Store shoppers alike. But running this huge operation doesn’t leave much time to hand-hold the newer cooks. Plus, the Navy doesn’t coddle. But I do, and on more than one occasion I gave pep talks to kids who had lost motivation and were having a hard time seeing their own value after six months at sea. I found myself repeating that in 30 years of food service I have never seen a civilian cook with the stamina or work ethic of these sailors.
My main objective aboard the Stennis was to improve the overall quality of the everyday food service, which is no easy task. The great paradox of the Adopt-a-Chef program is that, while the Navy sends chefs into the field to train its cooks, it is simultaneously replacing fresh foods with prepared foods that need only be heated and served. Their menus are dictated by supply command and are overwhelmingly white: white pasta, white rice, white bread, white potatoes and white-sugar-loaded desserts, with precious few fresh vegetables or whole grains. It’s a high-glycemic-index incursion. Even worse are the deep fryers, revved up at every meal. With a military obesity rate hovering at 30 percent and new recruit obesity closer to 80 percent, this is an unconscionable blubber blitzkrieg.
It’s no wonder crew members must be forced to endure physical training in order to pass their physical readiness test. (Vending machines loaded with Mountain Dew, Pop Tarts and Doritos in the corridors on the way to the exercise machines are hardly inspiring.) All this, while the folks back home are moving rapidly toward more wholesome, farm-fresh, ethically raised, organic food sources. I am repeatedly counseled by those in command that these sailors are adults and can make their own choices, an argument that misses the mark on two counts --- most are barely adults, and adults don’t make good food choices anyway. If they did, obesity wouldn’t be spreading across the globe in a wave of golden arches moving faster than an F/A-18 Hornet. So, I spend a lot of time on these trips promoting healthier eating and smarter choices.
This trip was, in many respects, the same as all my previous Navy trips. I worked with lots of enthusiastic cooks, judged a cooking contest, got to visit the bridge and flight deck, and watched a replenishment at sea, in which food, mail, fuel and other supplies are passed between two moving ships by a cable and helicopters. But it was also unique. While every galley I visit is more or less the same, it’s only the carriers that constantly boom with the sound of jets taking off and landing. Being in the confined spaces of the ship, it was easy to forget where I was and what those jets were doing. It was also easy to forget that it was Christmastime, although the chiefs (essentially managers) made a huge effort to make it festive with decorations everywhere, including a gingerbread village and lights strung up across every bulkhead. There were karaoke contests, ice cream socials and holiday movies playing 24 hours a day.
It could be said that I was a strange sort of Christmas present to the CSs. (Although, when I say that out loud, I realize it’s more accurate to say that they were a Christmas present to me.) There is no doubt that these cooks, working in incredible situations
with crazy limitations that most cooks would find impossible, taught me quite a few
lessons, not the least of which is how not to be a pussy. I work harder on these trips than any other time in my life, and it is a privilege. I have never been so grateful to be so exhausted.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. A South Pasadena resident, she teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.