Imagine cooking a meal for 30 people in a kitchen measuring five by nine feet. Now, imagine doing that three times a day, aboard a ship, at sea, all alone. This is what the culinary specialists (CS) assigned to coastal patrol ships (PC) based out of Bahrain do every day.
Culinary Specialists 1st Class Vibol Som, USS Chinook (PC 9), and Jose Valencia, USS Firebolt (PC 10), cook for their crew of about 30 Sailors every day, by themselves, in a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet.
“For a CS on a PC, they are kind of alone and unafraid. They are the lone supply rating that is assigned to the ship,” said Lt. Cmdr. William Buford, commanding officer, USS Chinook, on the culinary specialist’s role on a coastal patrol ship. “They don’t have the support network of an onboard Supply Officer or Disbursing Officer or even anyone else in the department, so as a first class CS, he’s running the whole show, food service, soup to nuts, all by himself.”
Being a culinary specialist aboard a coastal patrol ship is no easy feat. There is no culinary team and there are no food service attendants to help them.
“On a larger ship, I have lots of help and usually one is assigned to a specific job and that is all you have to do; just make sure your assigned duties and responsibilities are completed. Here on a PC, it’s just me,” said Valencia, “from the Supply Officer to the Food Service Officer, to the leading culinary specialist, to the food service attendant-many different hats, one person.”
Culinary specialists aboard coastal patrol ships are in charge of budgeting, menu planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the mess.
Going from being a part of a culinary team to being the entire culinary team can be a humbling experience. “As a CS, being independent like this teaches us to appreciate more, it also teaches us to appreciate the personnel and help we get on large deck ships,” said Valencia of his experience.
Not only are they involved with food, but also with the clean-up and maintenance of the kitchen. Each of the ship’s crew help the culinary specialists anyway they can, by putting away dishes, washing dishes, or helping the CS to clean the kitchen.
“We all wash our own plates. We all put our silverware in the dishwasher. If I go right now and went to wash my plate and stick it in the dishwasher and it was full, I am going to unload the dishwasher,” said Lt. Cmdr. Mitch McGuffie, Commanding Officer, USS Firebolt, on helping to keep the mess clean. “We all help out, the fact that we all sit down together, there is no chief’s mess, no first class mess, there is no wardroom; it is just one mess area that we eat in and it definitely promotes a family feel and a family style of helping out.”
One of the benefits of being a CS aboard a coastal patrol ship is the feedback is instantaneous. Each CS is able to get immediate feedback on what the crew wants, likes, and dislikes.
“The ship is only 180 feet long and there are 30 of us so feedback, good or bad, tends to surface pretty quickly,” said Buford.
This allows each CS to tailor the ships meal plans to what the crew wants.
Aboard Chinook, the crew meets monthly to discuss the next month’s meal plan, meals that were liked, and meals they never want to see again. “We sit in the mess and talk about the food. Everyone participates and I create the monthly menu,” explained Som. “There is a little more freedom on the ship because we are not required to follow the Navy Standard Core Menu, a set menu plan that repeats every 21 days, that larger ships are required to utilize.”
Each ship is different in how the CS and crew contribute to the meal planning process. While some ships do not follow the NSCM, some ships try to keep traditional the NSCM meal days. Aboard Firebolt, there are meals in the NSCM that are not changed or skipped. Taco Tuesdays, Burger Wednesdays, and Pizza and Wings Saturdays are still staples in the meal planning process, “Those are must have meals on board,” said Valencia.
Each of the CSs and the commanding officers of the coastal patrol ships believe the food served plays an important role in boosting and maintaining morale. “The morale of the crew is in their food-the better the food and meals we provide, the higher their morale is,” emphasized Valencia on morale and meals. “Seeing my shipmates come through the line and leave happy after they had a good meal is what it is all about. It makes my day and my job more rewarding in many ways.”
On a ship like a PC, being out to sea means no cable television, limited exercise space, limited contact with family, and limited berthing space to relax in during down time. The only real space available for relaxing and bonding is the mess deck. In addition to providing a space to socialize, the mess helps to celebrate holidays, when the ship is out to sea and the Sailors are away from their families and home. “A Sailor could be having a bad day for any reason, but when the chow call is given, it is my time to make that Sailor’s day a little bit better,” said Valencia.
Cooking aboard the patrol craft while at sea can be a challenge. Each CS has to plan to obtain enough food to last the ship for the amount of time they are out to sea. With the lack of refrigerated and dry space to store food, each CS must make sure they buy just the right amount of food to get them to their next port stop.
“Food and supplies ordering is one of the challenges. With the heavy operational schedule of the PC’s, it requires a lot of coordination to make sure the little time in port is well used to purchase supplies and food for the next patrol,” Valencia continues, “It is the only chance to get what I need for the next few days at sea.”
Planning for food stores is not the only challenge. “Cooking meals can get really challenging because the ship rocks back and forth while out to sea,” says Som on the difficulty of cooking a meal on a ship, “it can get pretty rocky and cooking while seasick is not easy.”
Because the crew is so small on the ship, they take on additional duties and responsibilities. This means that the CSs aboard the PC also have the opportunity to take on additional operation duties such as being an officer of the deck, a career counselor, an engineering officer of the watch, a safety observer and many more.
This is a rare chance for a CS to earn qualifications and gain experience that will be beneficial for their career progression. “It is unusual for a CS to get an Officer of the Deck qualification in the Navy and that will definitely set him apart from his peers,” said McGuffie of the opportunities that culinary specialists have aboard the ship.
As challenging as this duty station may be, it is also incredibly rewarding. The crew becomes a tight knit family, the culinary specialists get in touch with their culinary roots and come away with experiences and qualifications to help them achieve and pass on knowledge at their next command.
Som said of his experience, “It’s a good challenge. If you can make it here you can make it anywhere. When I go to a bigger ship, I think I’ll do really well.”
By Carole Stringfield, NAV SUP Fleet Logistics Center Bahrain Public Affairs