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Sub Grub Is Navy's Five-Star Secret

The Pentagon goes to great depths to provide the crews of its underwater boats with the best food the military can cook up.

January 18, 2003|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — It's lunchtime aboard the nuclear attack submarine Jefferson City and the tired crew -- some bearing fresh grease stains on their work overalls -- fills the tiny dining room, clearly ready to chow down.

On cue, mess specialist Richard Youhan begins slicing a 25-pound prime rib roast into half-inch-thick pieces, before gingerly transferring the second entree, baked lobster tails with spicy Old Bay Seasoning, onto a serving tray.

Sauteed mushrooms, baked potatoes and beef rice soup come next, with baskets full of hot, oven-baked bread that was made from scratch. For dessert Youhan, a petty officer 3rd class and former French pastry baker from Cypress, has prepared chocolate and lemon cakes made with real chocolate and freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Welcome to submarine life, where the Navy's chefs prepare what is widely considered to be the military's finest dining experience. Because nuclear subs stay submerged for as long as 90 days straight, serving better food is a way to make up for what is considered to be one of the toughest assignments in the military.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 563 words Type of Material: Correction
Submarine food -- A chart accompanying Saturday's Column One about dining on board a submarine showed that the cholesterol count of eggs and omelets made to order on the Jefferson City is zero milligrams. The chart, supplied by the Navy, indicated zero milligrams because the exact cholesterol level varies depending on how the sailors wanted their eggs prepared.

"When we're out to sea, the highlight of the day is food. There is not much else to look forward to," says senior mess specialist Salvador Rico, a petty officer 1st class and an 11-year veteran of the nation's nuclear submarine fleet.

Tom Clancy, best-selling author of "The Hunt for Red October," has raved about submarine food, writing that the dining experience is "truly a pleasure, as the Navy goes all out to give the men the best chow the taxpayer's money can buy."

Much about submarine life, particularly in the nuclear fleet, was kept secret during the Cold War.

But the closely held tradition surrounding submarine cuisine -- long dismissed as a myth outside the Navy -- has recently begun to emerge.

The Food Network cable channel has produced a television show devoted to food served aboard subs, and a cookbook is in the works with the working title "Deep Comfort: Cooking Secrets From America's Submarine Service."

The tradition dates to World War II, when sailors jealously marveled at a submarine's food inventory, which often included steak, lobster and freshly made sausage. It was on a sub that the Navy's first fresh milk dispenser was installed in 1960 after Congress passed legislation overruling Pentagon officials who had argued there was no room for it.

"Food was a reward for hazardous duty," says retired Vice Adm. Joe "Jumping Joe" Williams, who commanded the Atlantic submarine fleet before leaving the Navy in 1977 after 30 years of service.

"We had three things going for us: The quality of food and the amount that was served. The music on board. And the reading materials. But food was a very, very important component."

Submarine cooks don't just peel potatoes, says Lt. Cmdr. Steve Benke, the Jefferson City's executive officer. "They're going to culinary school."

And not just any ordinary schools or restaurants. One of the nation's top chef schools, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., regularly trains submarine cooks. So have some of the best-known restaurants in the country, including the "21" in New York, the Cloister in Georgia and Emeril's in New Orleans. After leaving the Navy, some submarine cooks have wound up teaching at the Culinary Institute or becoming chefs at fashionable restaurants such as the Park Avenue Cafe in Manhattan.

Williams recalls sending his cooks to the Stork Club or the Algonquian Room in the 1950s when his subs docked in New York.

For the submarine cooks, it was a life-altering experience. "We would have these meat-and-potato guys, most of them from the heartland, who would be exposed to things they've never seen before and they'd finish their Navy careers more worldly than most of us," Williams says. The tradition has grown to where a sub might have several restaurants and schools it can tap for training.

Even when the subs are deployed the cooks may spend a few days getting tips from local restaurants while docked at a port in Japan or Spain. The crew of the Jefferson City, for instance, got Australian cooking tips last year from one of that country's more acclaimed chefs while visiting Perth.

Their culinary skills also have resulted in many submarine cooks landing jobs in the White House. The Air Force flies the president, the Marines help provide his security, but it's the Navy chefs -- often former submarine cooks -- who prepare his meals.

That tradition dates to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former undersecretary of the Navy who later had Navy cooks prepare his meals when he used the presidential yacht. President Truman later extended those responsibilities to the White House.

Recently, a Times reporter boarded the Jefferson City when it was docked at the Point Loma sub base near the mouth of San Diego Bay.

The Navy's fleet of 73 submarines -- all powered by nuclear reactors -- is divided into two classes.

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