As executive chef for U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Chief Culinary Specialist (SW) Thomas McNulty cooks for some of the world’s most powerful people using some of the same skills the Navy hopes will make the food sailors eat tastier and healthier.
“The culinary world has blown up, and I think it’s a natural progression that the military and the Navy have seen that we just can’t sit in an archaic era,” McNulty, a 14-year veteran, told Navy Times.
He’s one of the most prominent examples of the kind of approach to cooking the Navy hopes will give your ship’s galley the feel of Mom’s kitchen. This includes higher-level training for culinary specialists and a focus on making meals from scratch whenever possible.
“Really, the morale of a ship, I think most folks will tell you, starts at the mess decks,” said Cmdr. Danny King, director of Navy food services.
The new approach comes as a few trends converge. First, there’s the emergence of foodie culture. Americans — including sailors, particularly younger ones — have more daring tastes, and the rise of the chef-as-celebrity means anyone who can cook up a good meal is appreciated. Second, sailors are more interested in healthier foods, so the Navy wants its cooks to have the know-how to cut fat, cholesterol and calories without cutting flavor.
McNulty trained with Marcus Dunbar, the executive chef at the Westin Hotel in downtown Seattle, one of many civilian chefs helping Navy cooks hone their skills. Sailors also have trained with chefs at the upscale Hotel Del Coronado in Coronado, Calif., as well as those at major chains such as Hilton and Marriott. Meanwhile, executive chefs are visiting ships and training sailors in their galleys. The Culinary Institute of America is also involved, King said.
The end of ‘synthetic taste’
The Navy also wants more made-from-scratch meals in a menu that’s often filled with pre-made, frozen dishes. With the volume of food involved, it may mean using both raw and pre-made ingredients — a “speed-scratch” technique where culinary specialists can still show their personal style.
“Putting a mother’s touch into items that are being prepared goes a long way,” King said. “They’re good products,” he said, referring to the military’s official recipes. “There’s nothing wrong with them, but at the same time there’s somewhat of a synthetic taste to them.”
Scratch cooking improves the meals, but it takes more time, said Deb Sisson, the Navy project officer at the Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass.
“The Navy’s looking for the right balance of using prepared foods and scratch cooking, prepared foods where it makes sense and scratch where it makes sense,” she said.
For example, on an aircraft carrier it would be difficult to make lasagna for 5,000 from scratch; frozen lasagna is more practical. But on a submarine with 130 people, making lasagna from scratch is possible, she said.
The mess staff on the aircraft carrier Enterprise said cooking from scratch — even in part — takes more time but makes their work more enjoyable and meals taste and look better.
“Pre-assembled meals are more helpful when feeding 5,000 sailors; it really is a stress-reliever,” Culinary Specialist Seaman Joshua Root said in an email. “However, when working in the wardroom [with] fewer people, scratch prep is a way better technique.”
Enterprise cooks said they like showing off their talents when cooking from scratch. They are particularly proud of the Asian-Pacific heritage dinner they made in May. CS3 Megan Scales decorated a cake that used brown sugar to make a beach and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish to populate an ocean crafted out of blue icing.
CSSN Quindell Jenkins paid close attention to the pep talk his watch captain gave the day before the meal.
“He spoke to all of us before the Asian-Pacific meal where we have to carve baby pigs on the carving station,” Jenkins said.
Yes, that’s suckling pig served on an aircraft carrier in the middle of a combat mission in the Persian Gulf.
The watch captain continued, Jenkins said, by saying, “We are going to actually see what the culinary specialist rating is supposed to be about.”