Every inch of the stainless steel counters are utilized to chop vegetables, prepare pizza toppings and fry chicken wings. The cooks move and work together like a finely tuned, well-oiled machine in the galley aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Preble (DDG 88). They joke and sing along with every style of music, played from a Bluetooth speaker hanging overhead, from old country to underground rap.
A stack of freshly baked pizza crusts takes up one of the counters. The culinary specialist tastes his creation and adds more spices. Finally, the sauce is complete and ready for crust. Every single cookie sheet is out and ready for pizza.
The silver roll-up doors on the mess line remain closed, but muffled music and singing can be heard in the dimly lit passage way between the galley and mess deck. The crew understands culinary specialists are hard at work preparing supper.
Culinary specialists (CS), who receive extensive training in culinary arts, hotel management and other areas in the hospitality industry, are responsible for all aspects of shipboard mess decks, dining and shore duty living areas. They also provide food service catering and hospitality services for admirals, senior government executives and the White House Mess for the president of the United States. Ask almost any Sailor, and he or she will say CSs are vital in maintaining high crew morale on not only ships, but in construction battalions and on every shore base.
Indeed, the rate has a very deep connection to the morale aboard ships. CSs have three roles in the Navy: They are responsible for supporting physical health and fitness, building morale and providing occasions for socializing. CSs also promote camaraderie and mitigate boredom during long deployments by supporting special events with food.
“CSs are definitely the heart of the crew, because when you see someone come through the line and they’re happy about the product they tasted, it looks good and it literally made their day, it makes our day,” said Culinary Specialist 1st Class Patricia Miller, food service division leading petty officer, assigned to USS Preble. “We just made the whole crew better just by the product we put out. I think that’s a big deal. I would say we play a highly significant role in that people having a bad day can come through the line and it will be something their mom used to make all the time. They’ll eat it and it will take them back to a place of peace and they will be happy for the rest of the day. And we’ll actually hear about it all day. That one product that just literally turned their whole day around. It’s a good feeling. It’s a real good feeling.”
It’s all about reminding Sailors of home. In fact, Senior Chief Culinary Specialist LaDonna Tillery, Preble’s leading culinary specialist, actually teaches her junior CSs the rate by comparing it to throwing a dinner party.
“If you’re throwing a dinner party, what would you have to do?” asked Tillery. “First, find out how many guests you have coming. That’s our head count; that’s how many people we are serving onboard. Next, what are you going to have at the dinner party? That’s your menu. You come up with a menu. That’s what you’re going to serve. Then you gotta go grocery shopping; order your food using the 1282. That’s how I explain it to them, and they’re like, ‘Oh, that makes so much sense!’ It’s the same, just on a larger scale.”
Then, each part of the dinner party is broken up into specific jobs.
The bulk storeroom custodian (better known as a JOD – jack of the dust) manages all of the storerooms. This person would be like the grocery store. The watch captain manages the galley, the overall production of the food and preparation, much like a head chef. The watch captain orders food on the NAVSUP form 1282, the food-item request/issue document, which goes to the JOD.
The JOD, the watch captain and chief CS all work closely together, usually around the Navy Standard Core Menu.
This is a 21-day cycle menu that, when repeated twice, allows each shift the opportunity to prepare the entire cycle menu. Menus not only affect the health and morale of the crew, but also the endurance of a ship. Requirements vary among ship types and classes. In fact, the amount of food storage space varies even between ships with identical complements.
“We have a daily menu production meeting where we look at the menu to verify that we have everything that we are supposed to have downstairs,” said Tillery. “It’s a lot of work, but you know what? I’ve come to enjoy it because I feel like now at this point I’m just perfecting it. … It’s kind of cool to show [junior CSs] the ins and outs of our rate, and it helps them to be more proficient at their jobs as the watch captain and JOD. They understand the importance of ordering the right way or making sure that when you do the ordering … you use a recipe card because you may not know all the ingredients.”
The JOD, watch captain and chief CS look at the books and monitor the inventory daily. If the breakouts and returns are not properly managed, the inventory can be off. For example, the system may say there are eight cases of eggs, but in reality there are only five in the storeroom.
This can make for some long days.
Miller explained that a typical shift for CSs aboard Preble starts at about 3:45 a.m. to prepare breakfast. Breakfast is served from 6:30 to 7:30. Then the CSs and food service attendants (FSA), who are personnel assigned to temporarily augment the CS team from other divisions, clean up and head to quarters. Once they’ve received instructions for the day, they all return to the galley to prepare lunch. Normally the team will eat just before the rest of the crew. After lunch is served, they will clean up and prepare supper. After the supper remains and dishes are cleaned up, CSs are finally done for the day.
“[It’s] hard work, but it’s rewarding,” said Miller. “It feels good when you see [the crew’s] faces come through, and you made something that literally changed their day.”
And at the end of a long, hard shift as they sit down to a hot meal, Sailors can know that that food means just as much to the people who cooked it as it does to them. Their CSs, not all of whom start with experience in the kitchen, have put their hearts and souls into their food.
“My favorite part about being a CS, I would have to say, is that I’m able to express myself in a creative way,” said Culinary Specialist Seaman Ethan New, assigned to USS Preble. “Anytime there’s a product that I’m assigned to do, I’m never really basic about it. I like to add a little spice – a little zing zang to the product to make it taste a little better, taste different.
“My favorite thing that I’ve made was during deployment,” he continued. “Shrimp on the menu is usually Schezwan shrimp. I decided to change it up a little bit. Our commanding officer is from the South and I’m from the South, so I thought of creating a gumbo, a shrimp gumbo. Rice, red beans, shrimp – all of the above. It wasn’t too spicy. It was my first major artwork that I created with a meal. Everybody loved it. Absolutely loved it! Everyone said that was their favorite food they’ve had on a ship since they’ve been on here. They’ve been on the ship for three or four years. They’ve never had a product that good. It was so good; it made everyone so happy. … It was one of my best achievements in the galley.”
In the words of Miller, “The standard has been set – the standard of excellence, the standard of delicious food, of creativity, so the sky is the limit.”