FAIRBANKS — While most Alaskans were trying to savor the last weeks of summer, Michael Roddey volunteered to spend much of his August in the cramped, busy galleys of a U.S. Navy vessel.
It wouldn’t be most people’s idea of a vacation, but Roddey, the culinary arts coordinator at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Community and Technical College, was thrilled with the two weeks he spent aboard the USS Boxer.
“It was fun,” he said. “It’s an experience I’ve obviously never had before, and something I’d never be able to relay to my students.”
Roddey took the assignment as part of the Navy’s “Adopt a Ship” program, which pairs professional chefs with the culinary specialists aboard U.S. Navy vessels.
Roddey has a varied resume, including work as a personal chef, movie-set caterer, prison food-service manager and college instructor. But his work aboard the
844-foot amphibious assault ship was something altogether different.
The USS Boxer carries about 1,000 Navy personnel, with the capacity to transport nearly 2,000 Marines. That translates into plenty of meals for the
50 culinary specialists who work in the vessel’s three galleys.
Roddey said personnel aboard Navy ships have the opportunity to eat well, with fresh vegetables and high-quality foods available during the four daily meals. But occasionally things go badly when food is served in massive quantities, such as the morning when a batch of leftover undercooked rice made it into a breakfast stir-fry dish.
That’s where professionals like Roddey come in. Since most Navy culinary specialists only have four weeks of food preparation training, a visiting chef can help by sprinkling cooking tips throughout the busy kitchen.
“They get a taste of what it’s like in the industry — there’s a tremendous amount of benefits for us,” said Michael Harants, who coordinates the Adopt a Ship program. “We get solid fundamentals from a culinary instructor.”
Harants said it’s also an amazing opportunity for a visiting chef. Where else can someone help feed thousands of sailors, see a plane land aboard an aircraft carrier, or shoot a few rounds out of a .50-caliber machine gun?
Since being launched in 1998, Harants said the Adopt a Ship program has been hugely popular, sometimes attracting more than 100 chefs per year to the floating cities that patrol the oceans.
“The majority of comments I get are, ‘When can I do it again?’” Harants said.
Roddey said there was some tension when he gave advice to some of the older cooks aboard the San Diego-based USS Boxer but most of the culinary specialists were eager for help. Although the vessel never got much more than 25 miles from shore during his visit, he said they developed a friendly rapport through that time together.
“You’re coming on board doing them a favor,” he said. “The mandate is that you should be treated like any guest. They take care of you.”
He said many of the changes he recommended were subtle, like adding seasonings during the cooking process instead of at the end. Basic techniques filled most of his 12-hour days, such as giving demonstrations on how to dice an onion.
Roddey also provided some tips to boost efficiency, like doing some prep work for a meal the day before it will be served.
“That concept blew them out of the water, no pun intended,” he said.
Roddey said it’s an opportunity for chefs to give something back to the sailors and cooks who work under tough conditions. Now that he’s back in Fairbanks, he said he has new insight into the path that developing cooks take while learning their craft.
“I just like to be involved in anything I can to promote the industry,” he said.