In the Store | May 2011 | By Lori Zanteson

This is How You Feed the Navy

QSR gets exclusive access aboard the USS Jefferson City, where efficiency and culinary innovation rule.

The military may not immediately come to mind as a go-to foodservice resource, but closer inspection suggests some eye-opening and revealing connections. QSR recently had the privilege of touring the galley of the USS Jefferson City, a Navy submarine home-ported in San Diego. This innovative foodservice operation, with its limited space and high volume, is a tightly run ship. Lest these words have lost their visual punch, a few minutes aboard this vessel will spiffy them right up.

The entry is down a ladder that drops 20 feet into the hull of bustling activity. Roughly 130 men are working aboard this 360-foot-long, 33-foot-wide ship, and each is on task. Some huddle over a workspace while many are on the go, in and out of doorways and around passages, standing tall to one side to let someone pass. The crew moves quickly and on a schedule they dutifully respect. A military submarine commands efficiency.

There are no exceptions, least of all the galley, which operates around the clock to stay on top of its game. A team of six feeds the entire crew. That’s four high-volume meals this team cranks out in 18 hours every day. And only two do the cooking, one during the day and one at night. Standing in the galley it’s clear why. About 10 feet by 14 feet, this small space (even by a quick serve’s standards), boasts nothing high tech or fancy save the pristine military shine on floor-to-ceiling stainless steel.

Two convection ovens side by side, a microwave oven, one deep fryer, twin cavernous soup pots, and an industrial-sized mixer are the only equipment. A tiny sink, sanitizer, cabinets, and drawers fill out any remaining space. Dog-eared recipe cards perched at eye level are in quick reach of the generous assortment of bulk spices.

It’s all about the basics here. Just try to squeeze in anything else.

Sure, space and time are limited, but service can’t be. In these close confines, there’s simply no room for compromise. Led by Lt. j.g Jason Thomas and culinary specialist chief (CSC) Brandon Ramos, the USS Jefferson City galley team doesn’t focus on limitations.

Whatever luxuries the galley lacks, this team makes up for in productivity and style. Their sights are on flavor and the morale of the crew. “It’s paramount the food be right every time,” Thomas says. “My team has to get it right. We’re only limited by provisions.”

On a sub, the amount of food stowed is capped by space. So provisions are limited, but only as limiting as the galley team allows. Buying in bulk not only means the Jefferson City can store more ingredients; it also means most of its meals are prepared completely from scratch. In fact, this galley team bakes fresh bread every day.

“We’re notorious for that,” Ramos says with a smile. This is one of many ways they enhance their menu repertoire. The Navy supplies a variety of recipe cards, but for this crew, they’re purely guidelines. Their creative energy goes toward improving the flavor of an otherwise ordinary dish as they experiment, gauge results, and come back again and again to make it better. They especially love to “change it up,” as Ramos says, by adding a new spice or “beefing up” the barbecue sauce with one of at least eight hot sauces the galley stocks.

“Our guys want change constantly,” he says. It takes a lot of planning and each chef has developed his own signature spin.

“We’re always improving, we’re motivated by that,” says Ramos, who expects continued progress. “This is my artwork,” he says. “All the guys are like that.”

It’s visible in this team. There is complete buy-in, and the men thrive on it. Thomas and Ramos can’t say enough about their team and how good they are individually.

“This is the best group in 16 years,” Ramos says. It’s this selfless mindset that makes this group work so well together. The fact that every one of them is trained in every job no doubt keeps them grounded and on the same page, but it also contributes to the strength and cohesion of this galley.

Like most chefs, they do have their specialties (and their weaknesses). Ramos admits baking isn’t his forte, but he could do it as they all could. This team’s leaders are not so far removed that they don’t remember what it was like to be in a different place.

“I was them five years ago,” he says. Ramos and Thomas make it a point to relate to their guys, joking, telling stories, and most of all having fun at work. Thomas sums it up well when he says, “I want them working for me because they want to, not because they have to.”

Leading by example is part of what makes this a cohesive, smooth-running team. Ramos attended culinary school before he joined the Navy and even trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) as part of a culinary award he earned on another ship.

Here, the training is hands-on. Thomas and Ramos are side by side with their crew, showing them how it’s done and coaching them along. “It took a year’s training for this group to fully come around,” Ramos says, “and now they’re top-notch chefs.” This is a team that works as one, from the top right on down. This is the way it should be, Ramos says.

“The boss should be in there doing the job and getting the respect of the guys.” It’s that mutual respect that feeds the camaraderie these men share. They enjoy their job and take their responsibilities seriously, but are quick to tell you they are not serious on the job by any means. “We burn thousands of calories laughing,” Ramos says. It’s all in a day’s work in this galley.

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