Seasoning Fleet Week with the salt of the earth: A culinary pro puts a brigade of Navy galley guys through the paces.
By Leslie Bilderback 07/01/2010
I like sailors.
Not in a hot-to-trot, looking-for-action way. In a professional culinary-instructor way.
I mention this because I have just returned from 10 days aboard the U.S.S. Philippine Sea (CG 58), a guided missile cruiser where I was invited on board to train its cooks and participate in New York City’s Fleet Week. This is my eighth training trip for the Navy, but the first time that I was attached to such a nice (and handsome) group of sailors. They were professional, conscientious, polite, respectful, fun and eager to learn. (The handsome part is probably because they were dressed up most of the time. I may not have felt that way if I saw them in real life, say, buying diapers at Costco.)
I feel strangely at home on board Navy vessels. Perhaps it’s because cooks in a kitchen, like sailors on a ship, are confined to small workspaces, rarely see the light of day and must accomplish repetitive, tedious tasks. Or maybe it’s because the great Auguste Escoffier (king of chefs, chef of kings… look him up, people) modeled his kitchen brigade system on the military.
The brigade is a kitchen hierarchy, with each station assigned to a specific taskmaster, such as saucier, garde manger, poissonnier, etc. The brigade is not seen much in American kitchens, but we borrow from it here and there. For instance, most fine restaurants employ a sous chef, who is essentially the XO (executive officer) of the kitchen. (You may be familiar with the brigade if you have seen the movie Ratatouille. And now, Escoffier is turning in his grave as I mention him in the same paragraph as an animated rat. Of course the dead Escoffier reads this column.)
Yes, we are kindred spirits, the sailors and I.
So off I flew to Norfolk, Virginia, to meet up with the ship. Super Navy Perk No. 1 is getting picked up at the airport by high-ranking sailors in khakis. Everyone thinks you’re a big shot. I am confident that, at the sight of my escorts, my fellow passengers felt bad for treating me like doo doo on the flight, seated as I was in the very last seat on the aisle, where it is perfectly acceptable to bump me, elbow me and casually lean on my seat as you wait in line for the lavatory. (And feel free to speak loudly to strangers about your pregnant cousin’s foot trouble. Yep, I’d much rather listen to that than to the movie.)
From Norfolk, the ship set sail for a five-day test drive after being upgraded with the latest technology. Super Navy Perk No. 2 was getting to see the combat control center, which closely resembles NASA’s mission control, only it’s darker, rocks back and forth and has better-looking nerds. Super Navy Perk No. 3 was visiting the bridge, where they let me steer. (Just relax! It was for only a couple of minutes. I didn’t run her aground or anything. It was like when I was 9 and my dad let me sit on his lap to steer the Ford LTD. Hard to believe I’m not running Daytona with training like that.)
The real reason I was there was to improve the galley’s culinary skills. The culinary specialists (CS’s) were a great group, eager to rejuvenate their Navy menus. They had lots of requests for recipes and demonstrations, so the first five days were non-stop cooking, trouble-shooting and fitting lessons in between meal prep. Few chefs I know could hack the schedule these sailors keep. When they leave the Navy, they will be better prepared for restaurant life than most culinary school graduates. Sure, they may not know how to make rillettes de lapin (yet), but they will never shudder at a 15-hour workday. (Super Navy Perk No. 4 is that at the end of a long day I sleep like a baby. Sleeping while underway is like being in a giant cradle. Plus, a week after being home I can still occasionally feel the rocking. Actually, this might be more of a disorder than a perk.)
The night before we arrived in New York, we held an Iron Chef competition. Ten teams from all over the ship were invited to the galley and given an hour to create a dish using specified ingredients. It was a hoot. The results were (mostly) terrific. (I learned that boot camp does not include a unit on rice cookery. FYI, you need to add water.) I served as a judge along with the CO (commanding officer), XO, CMC (command master chief) and SUPPO (supply officer). I think the event brought new appreciation for the galley (or at least made the other sailors thankful for the jobs they had).
The next day, after an awesome parade of ships into New York Harbor (Super Navy Perk No. 5 is sailing past Lady Liberty while manning the rails), I took the cooks on a culinary tour of the Big Apple. Our first stop was the James Beard House. These young men had barely heard of Julia Child, let alone James Beard, and I was worried they would be bored. But the staff gave us a warm welcome and a fascinating tour. When the sailors learned of Beard’s impact on American cooking and realized the number of world-class chefs who had stood at his stove, they were impressed. The James Beard staff was impressed by the sailors too. (Super Navy Perk No. 6 is all the warm attention. The sailors were repeatedly stopped and thanked for their service.)
Afterward we walked through Greenwich Village to Chelsea Market, stopping to shop at various specialty food stores. That week sailors swarmed all over New York… except Greenwich Village. I am confident ours was the first group of sailors that neighborhood had seen since the Village People. Still, they were showered with thanks and random free stuff, including hot dogs, beer and T-shirts. (That is Super Navy Perk No. 7.) I had hoped to get them into the Food Network studio, but the doorman was apparently a communist and had no love for the boys in uniform. So instead, we watched baguette production through the window at Amy’s Breads, shopped for truffle oil and dried mushrooms at an Italian grocer, ogled the shelves of an international spice purveyor, drooled over beautiful fresh produce and fish and bought too many cooking gadgets.
Our day ended with the royal treatment at the French Culinary Institute, which is surely the cream of the culinary school crop. The sailors were in awe. Their future in culinary school was the main topic of conversation as we headed out to a Mets game. (Super Navy Perk No. 8 — free tickets to stuff.) We got back to the ship just before curfew and, despite my credentials, the Marines thought the sailors were trying to smuggle me on board. (Me! I look like their moms. I am old enough to be their moms. I am quite possibly older than some of their moms.)
The next day was spent preparing for a reception of 300 guests, featuring the Navy band, bagpipers, a silent drill team and lots of speeches from admirals and commanders. The helicopter hangar bay served as our buffet line, festooned with banners and flags. We even had an American eagle ice sculpture (which, for future reference, is best disposed of after such an event by tossing overboard). The day was spent carving fruit, arranging platters, decorating cakes, poaching seafood and roasting meat to perfection.
A ship’s galley is not built for such an event, but as any caterer can tell you, it is not the venue but the organizational skills that count. The event went off without a hitch and, to top it off, two admirals gave me their coins (Super Navy Perk No. 9 is collecting coins. Ships and sailors have personalized coins that are exchanged.
I have amassed a nice little collection, including a coin from the secretary of the Navy, which I like to brag about. I am told that whoever has the highest-ranking coin at the bar gets a free round. I have never witnessed this personally, mind you. I am strictly business.)
All in all it was a successful trip. I showed them some useful skills, and they impressed the heck out of me. They were sweet and fun and smart and, with proper care and feeding, will grow into a fine batch of culinarians. I thank my lucky stars (and my patient family) that I got the opportunity to meet them. That was Super Navy Perk No. 10.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker and chef, a cookbook author and a former executive chef of Pasadena’s California School of Culinary Arts. A South Pasadena resident, Bilderback teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.