It was 6:30 a.m. on a crisp fall day as Coast Guard members lined up ready for the task at hand – a mystery basket.
The Coast Guard members were all chefs competing in the 10th annual Military Chef’s Cook-Off, joining more than 60 other chefs to show off their skills, training and culinary techniques.
The mystery basket challenge is a unique one but the rules are simple: each team is given the exact same set of ingredients that must be included in their dishes. Each team received its basket and had 30 minutes to submit its menu. The teams then had two hours to mise en place – prepare the food and equipment – then cook and serve a four-course meal for eight.
In this year’s mystery basket, the chefs found pork tenderloin, acorn squash, granny smith apples, tofu, quinoa and dried apricots; perhaps not the typical items you would find in a ship’s pantry. But instead of being intimidated, the chefs were inspired.
“The food service program in the Coast Guard is far more advanced than other services because of our creative control and freedom in our profession. I feel that it is one of the only rates in our service in which we can use our own ideas and turn them into realities on a daily basis, even at a junior level,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Mason Champlin, a food service specialist aboard the buoy tender Coast Guard Cutter Hollyhock.
“As a chef and a food service specialist you never stop learning which is quite humbling and inspiring to know that you will never achieve perfection,” added Champlin. “Working on a black hull is very rewarding and challenging at times. The most challenging aspect of it is to know when it’s appropriate to prepare difficult and elegant meals and when it’s time to serve comfort food.”
Champlin was far from Hollyhock’s black hull, however. Now was the time for an elegant meal.
The Coast Guard menu was comprised of acorn squash soup, quinoa salad with fried tofu and a port gastrique, pan roasted pork tenderloin, braised oyster mushrooms, apricot brandy demi-glace, sweet potato puree and haricot vertes with tourné carrots. For dessert, the team presented an apple tart fine topped with Chantilly cream.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald Rice could also relate to cooking in a unique environment as he is currently assigned to Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, the training tall ship for cadets and officer candidates.
“Cooking aboard the Eagle is different than anywhere else in the world. I have worked in many restaurants, with catering companies and have seen how a variety of units in the Coast Guard operate, and nothing compares,” said Rice. “The food service specialists that serve aboard Eagle have to be at the top of their game.”
Chief Petty Officer Stephen Bishop was a captain for one of the teams. Like any mission in the Coast Guard, success or failure all came down to teamwork. Ensuring everyone did his part to meet the time limit was Bishop’s main concern for his team. His biggest concern soon became a success, however, as his team finished their menu with 30 seconds left on the clock.
“These chefs are organized and talented,” said Bishop. “I was just the composer of this orchestra.”
The chefs had to compete against some of the best in the country, including the United States Military Culinary Arts Team, White House, Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of the Army, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Homeland Security. There were 10 Coast Guard chefs competing on three different teams: Commandant of the Coast Guard, United States Military Culinary Arts Team and Secretary of Homeland Security. Despite the talented competition, the Commandant of the Coast Guard team came out on top.
Regardless of what team they were on, the chefs said it wasn’t about what place they came in but about honoring their chosen profession.
“When I hear the call to honor our profession, I become very pleased that I am a chef,” said Champlin. “I would not have joined the Coast Guard if it wasn’t for the food service specialist rate due to my love for my profession.”