Navy chef has captive clientele
September 7th, 2011
09:15 AM ET
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ABOARD THE USS WASP (CNN) – Most chefs strive to get their customers to come back maybe once a week, but Benny Brockington's clientele come for breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday, sometimes even a midnight snack.

They have to. They are sailors with almost no other options. But as the Food Service Officer, the man in charge of all meals on the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, Chief Warrant Officer Brockington is the crème de la crème of Navy chefs who sees his captive audience as a challenge.

Before was assigned to the Wasp, Brockington was chef to President Clinton and his family at the Camp David presidential retreat, and then went to work for one of the Navy's highest ranking admirals.

Now Brockington has switched from cooking small meals for big shots to cooking thousands of meals for the heart and soul of the military. He is in charge of five messes, overseeing all food preparation on a ship that can carry as many 3,000 sailors and marines.

The largest mess is for the enlisted men and women on the ship. There's the "chief's mess" for the senior non-commissioned officers and the wardroom for commissioned officers. Capt. Brenda Holdener, the ship's commander, has her own cook as does her boss, Rear Admiral Kevin Scott, who uses the Wasp as his flagship.

Feeding that many people on a ship that is tossing and turning in the waves while hundreds of miles from the nearest grocery store isn't easy. And the giant bureaucracy that is US Navy procurement put up some more hurdles.

In order to buy enough food for sailors around the world and reduce waste, the Navy uses a 21-day menu cycle. Someone in a Navy office decides what will be served on every ship at each meal, every day, and after 21 days the menus start over. For sailors who often spend six months, things can get old pretty quickly.

"The crew gets burned out," Brockington said. "They tell me 'seems like we have the same thing over and over.'"

Even Capt. Holdener says the Navy's system makes the job harder for the man she calls her cook boss and his team.

"The Navy provides us with menus, the Navy provides us with 'This is what you shall serve' and they make magic out of that," Holdener said.

The magic involves getting the best from what the Navy allows.

"The menu may call for baked chicken, but I can change the recipe and have my cooks make curried chicken." Brockington said.

One day while the Wasp was sailing the waters south of Long Island, NY after Hurricane Irene, the lunch menu included cornbread.

That night the dinner menu called for turkey with "bread dressing." I noticed it wasn't made from your typical white bread, it was a delicious corn bread dressing that raised the quality of the dinner meal. It also wasn't lost on some of us that corn bread was part of the lunch menu and the dinner dressing obviously helped Brockington avoid wasting leftovers.

Brockington, who grew up on Florence, South Carolina, didn't start cooking until he joined the Navy and was assigned dish duty. When he showed up for work, sometimes a few of the cooks would be late, so he'd start heating up some bacon. But the man in charge said "you aren't supposed to be cooking."

Still he kept cooking because he didn't want the late cooks to get in trouble. Finally the man in charge let him try his hand in the kitchen instead of the dish room.'

His first test was cake decorating. He still considers baking his area of expertise.

"I still do a lot of baking. I do hands on. That's how I train and motivate my guys."

Brockington tastes the food coming out of his galleys, so he doesn't have to sit down to eat a meal like other folks on board. Still when he does eat, it's usually in the main mess hall.

"I try to eat with the enlisted. If's it's good enough for me to eat, it's good enough for them," Brockington said.

Most of the sailors CNN talked to had good things to say, or were at least luke warm about the food. We did overhear one sailor as he ripped into the plastic wrap around a Meal Ready to Eat (MRE).

"I'd rather eat one of these than ship's food any day."

Still, his commander has high praise for the man she calls the ship's cook boss.

"My food service team is awesome; I would take them any day over the finest restaurant that exists," said Capt. Holdener.

But even she has some issues with the food on board. She is a vegetarian. And the Navy's 21-day cycle of menus doesn't really accommodate her personal preferences.

"The quality is not the challenge. The challenge is the options of availability, for me you can't feed me a salad everyday and call it good. I think that it is challenging to have, not just a vegetarian, but if you are restricted in your diet, whether it's religious or whether it's personal preference, I think if you have a restricted diet, then it becomes very challenging to try to work around the Navy's cycle of food," Holdener said. "We are not as flexible with that."

Now that she has command of her own ship, she has her own chef who can, within the constraints of Navy rules, make the Captain food that match her diet.

On the day we visited, her chef, or "culinary specialist" in Navy terms, Petty Officer 2nd Class Solrosita De Perio, had prepared a dish of tofu, onions, garlic, red, green and yellow peppers mixed with sesame oil.

De Perio said preparing vegetarian meals for the captain wasn't easy, because she's from the Philippines, where the diet tends towards "meat, meat, meat."

But after just a few months of cooking for the captain, she's now making vegetarian meals for her own family.

As for Brockington, I asked him what he would prepare for his wife on a special occasion. His menu: "Scalloped potatoes, rosemary crusted beef tenderloin, asparagus tips and maybe a béarnaise sauce or red wine demi-glace."

That night, he was serving pizza to the sailors on the Wasp. Most of the pies came to the ship frozen, but back in the galley of the enlisted men's mess, he had about half a dozen pizzas he and his team had made fresh by hand. If they tasted as good as they smelled, some sailors were in for a treat.

But Brockington won't be on the Wasp for long. He's due for a promotion and a new job. He will become the officer in charge of the Culinary Specialist A School at Fort Lee Virginia where chefs from all branches of the service go to train and practice their skills.

So soon the culinary skills once enjoyed by the Commander in Chief will benefit sailors, marines, airmen and soldiers all over the world.

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soundoff (61 Responses)
  1. ticktockKY

    If you want to lose weight, go onboard a naval vessel, I lost 25 lbs on one WESTPAC or get assigned to Diego Garcia (lost 40 lbs in 362 days). Most Navy cooks try, but, with what supplies they get, it is almost impossible to make eatable meals.

    October 1, 2011 at 1:51 am | Reply
  2. Melissa

    The article should have gone into more detail about how much the Navy allots per sailor per day-it's a ridiculously small amount. That's where the magic comes in, imo, in making something out of nearly nothing.

    September 14, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  3. brad from TX

    I was on the USS NIMITZ (CVN 68) during the Persian Gulf/WESPAC of '91; we had a McNimitz alternative if we did'nt like what was in the enlisted galley, sliders, sandwiches, hot dogs, etc. I had to messcrank for 3 mos., 2 of which was in the chief's mess; they had some good food. The enlisted galley left alot to be desired, and I never got to see the officer's mess. The chiefs bought their food, which was good quality.

    September 11, 2011 at 2:39 am | Reply
  4. Jbone

    This man is a great! The majority of you are clowns and if you were on a ship should jump off the side! Keep up the good work i know you will. Remember "Im so paid".

    September 8, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Reply
    • Drunken Sailor

      I was on the WASP for 4 years. The food all comes in packages labled "for institutional use only." If that means anything to anyone its the same food they give inmates. Now as for the cooks, dont get me started on how rude and unprofessional any one of them is. You are talking about a group of people that dont eat the food that they serve. At any given time you ask a cook what they are serving, your response will be "I dont know, i dont eat that @#$%." Now for this man in this article, I have met him and he is definatly doing his hardest to turn around the food service on that ship, good for him, they need it. For the people complaining about tax payers money going to work and the Captain having her own cook, you need to realize that the "personal cook" is an enlisted cook, usually one of the cooks that cares about his/her job, and it is considered a reward in their profession to to cook for the Captain. They dont get any extra benefits and they are serving their country in the same way any other sailor on the ship is. There you have it, strait from a former WASP crew member... please do your research before you blow up the comment section.

      September 9, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  5. Rick Springfield

    Many aircraft carriers have what is called a brown line, green line, and express. Its a long wait most of the time. The brown line is the most popular because its the hot foods. The Green line is for calorie challenged people. If the medic has placed you on restricted intake then you are limited to salads. The express is another salad and sandwich bar. Food service has changed a lot as much of the military food service is managed by contractors such as Sodexho. A lot of food is made in factories to be fast heated and served as is. Its the same way with the majority of US schools, camps and churches. Prior to the processed food craze, many see going vessels used potato pellets for many of their recipes. They had tremendous shelf life and versatility. You could reconstitute them and make pretty darn good french fries. It all has changed and it hinges on large factories cranking out nearly ready to eat foods.

    September 7, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  6. crazycatman

    On the Enterprise (late '60s/early '70s) Sunday night was steak and lobster night. I passed on the steak - I figured I could get steak anytime - but boy, did I pig out on the lobster.

    September 7, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Reply
  7. Eric

    Too bad guys like him are few and far between. This is a rare occurrence in today's navy in which chiefs and other senior NCOs are pieces of lazy crap. Keep up the good work warrant.

    September 7, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  8. Tom

    I worked on a US Navy media website for most of the last 10 years and sampled the food on many ships. The quality of food and the people who make it are the finest our Navy has ever produced. The Sailors work long, hard hours and I don't mind paying my hard-earned tax dollars to give these fine men and women good food. Bravo Zuku

    September 7, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Reply
    • Umptysquat

      It's "bravo zulu".. One good thing about the rotation of meals is you get to know what day of the week it is by the meal being served. On the USS Anzio, friday night was pizza and bingo on the mess deck with the Chaplain.

      September 22, 2011 at 7:30 am | Reply
  9. Louie

    Nothing like C ration for breakfast on a very cold morning in Germany while on an FTX.
    I remember them well. Oh yeah, the bug in the ham & eggs was extra protein. Ha.

    September 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  10. Stevelk1

    Alright, EVERYBODY sing along now:

    OHHHHH, I just got paid so I just got laid
    I'm Barnacle Bill The Sailor.............

    I can't remember the other 400 verses.

    September 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Reply
  11. Heywood Jablowme

    Ridiculous that the Captain and the Admiral have personal chefs. Talk about a waste of taxpayer money. Seems to me they can eat what everyone else is eating.

    September 7, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Reply
    • RichG

      I was an enlisted sailor and worked three months mess duty in the officers mess. Believe me, they earned every bit of it to have their own chef.

      September 7, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Reply
    • Chris

      What they don't say here is that the CO typically pays for his/her own food. They get their own meals, but they buy them just as you would at home.

      As for having their own cook, it's as much for the rest of the crew as it is a perk for them. How would you like it if your boss followed you home everynight to eat dinner with you.

      September 7, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Reply
  12. kayaker518

    What gets me is, why does the commander need her own personal chef?

    September 7, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Reply
    • RichG

      Because she earned it! Now drop and give me 20!

      September 7, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Reply
    • hawaiiduude

      they spit in the food they serve so its allgood.

      September 7, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Reply
    • Chris

      Kayaker – Same answer I gave above. It's nicer for everyone else. I did a sea tour as an XO (second in command), and even in that position, where you can get fairly comfortable around the captain, I enjoyed eating dinner without getting grilled about the day's events.

      The captain pays for his/her own food supply, which can get pretty pricey if you're trying to get quality, Western-style food overseas (try finding meat you'd actually want to eat in sub-Saharan Africa). Further, even though the captain had his own dining area and cook, on my ship he had seating for 6 and would routinely invite a handful of other officers, senior enlisted, or even junior enlisted up for a meal (sailor of the quarter, etc.), which meant he was typically buying for a family of 6, and given the demographic of your typical sailor, it was like a family of 6 that ate like high-school football players. I'd bet that "perk" cost him about $3000 over his two year assignment.

      September 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Reply
  13. Larry

    Before i clicked on this link, i knew the cook had to be a black!

    September 7, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • Martin

      Why, because the President is black?

      September 7, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Reply
    • Aletheya

      I see. I guess because you're psychic, not racist, right? So did you also know in advance that the Captain's personal cook is a Filipina? Yeah. Right.

      September 7, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Reply
    • hawaiiduude

      and his hands look sooty so he should be wearing white gloves like back in the south...

      September 7, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  14. Multi-Tasking @ Work

    My heart goes to the Chef...I'm sure that whatever he gets for food, he puts love & respect in his recipes for our Servicemen.

    September 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  15. Loopman

    My memories of Marine Corps chow while I was in Nam aren't as rosy and filled with pleasant fragrances as this article seems to present. We ate C rations most of the time when we were in the field and cherished a hot meal when we were back in camp. C Ration scrambed eggs and ham reminded you of an old rubber chicken stuffed in a can. I had my Mom send me a case of Frank's Louisiana Hot Sauce to dump in the scrambled eggs and ham to kill the taste. That's probbaly why I have an ulcer today. Wouldn't do it again, but wouldn't have missed it for the world. OOORAH!!!!

    September 7, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Reply
    • Aletheya

      Frank's Louisiana Hot Sauce can fix a lot of meals. I use it on my eggs all the time!

      September 7, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Reply
    • tim

      While on a long range reconnaissance patrols my c-ration meal of choice was Pork and beans, pears and pound cake with coffee. After a few days in a harbor site, this was as good as it gets!

      September 7, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Reply
      • Loopman

        @Tim- I have to go with you on the C-Ration pound cake. That stuff was like gold out on patrol. You could trade it for just about anything of value and come out the winner everytime. I forgot my spare socks one time (not what a good grunt would normally do), but I had a spare pound cake that I traded to one of my buddies for his spare pair. Dry socks are the lifes blood of the infantry, especially in the bush.

        September 8, 2011 at 8:09 am | Reply
  16. RD

    This sure is a far cry from the old days of Hardtack and Grog.

    September 7, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Reply
    • Aletheya

      Ah, the good old days. Weevils in the tack. The captain enforcing discipline with a cat-o-nine-tails. I miss it!

      September 7, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Reply
  17. HockeyMinny

    I wonder if this cook is like Steven Segal in that movie where he was like a ninja cook and killed all of the bad guys while he was baking pies? I hope so

    September 7, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Reply
    • Markus

      WTH?

      September 7, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Reply
    • Belgarath, Troll Wizard

      Under Seige, 1992.
      That was Steven's BFF era: BeFore Fat.

      September 7, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Reply
      • manatee

        If Steven Segall and Bruce Lee were to race to the other side of the world, you know who would win? Chuck Norris

        September 7, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  18. Humbogus

    Why is this story not about a woman, who is the captain of a flag ship in the US Navy?

    September 7, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Reply
    • BlackSouthernBoy@Humbogus

      Because this is the eating/food section of CNN. I thought that was fairly obvious...

      September 7, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Reply
      • Humbogus

        Women officers in the Navy is a much better story.

        September 7, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Reply
    • Krusatta

      Because A. That isn't HER flagship, it's Rear Admiral Scott's, B. Female captains (in charge, not the rank) of Navy vessels isn't all that uncommon and C. The last female ship commander in the news was getting relieved of her command for gross misconduct.

      September 7, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Reply
      • Humbogus

        The better story is woman who are leading, rather than who is doing the cooking. Sorry you two missed that obvious point.

        September 7, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Reply
    • Aletheya

      They didn't miss your point. This is the food section and so the article is about Navy cooks and food. You seem to have missed that point. An article about women in command might very well be fascinating, but it doesn't belong in the food section. Duh.

      September 7, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Reply
      • Humbogus

        Hello! That's EXACTLY my point! This would be a much better story if it were about leadership, and somewhere else on the page. Saddens me that the only light you see is the one coming from your open refrigerator.

        September 8, 2011 at 11:49 am | Reply
  19. mommawombat

    I work in Correctional Food Service, so I feel the pain of the head chef. We have a very captive audience-3 meals a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and for many, for the rest of their life. We operate on a similar rotation with even less procurable goods (its a maximum security prison...yeast, nutmeg, etc are no-nos...) so most of the time our hands are tied as to avaliable substitutions and enhancements. We do make do with what we get and some stuff actually comes out really good. For holidays, the offenders get homemade mashed potatoes and gravy, apple cornbread dressing, and turkey. Given the high volitility of the institution, it is important that food look good and taste good to calm the waters, so to speak. Kudos to the chef! He has his work cut out for him!

    September 7, 2011 at 11:54 am | Reply
    • Chris

      What's that thing called where the inmates make like a big burrito-type wrap out of smashed potato chips, ramen noodles, and all sorts of other stuff? And then they cook it in a dryer?

      September 7, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Reply
      • Kris

        A brick.

        September 7, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Reply
      • crazycatman

        I think you're talking about nutraloaf. It's basically meatloaf with veggies, applesauce and other ingredients, and it's punishment food served to disciplinary cases.

        September 7, 2011 at 7:03 pm | Reply
  20. Thomas

    When I was in the Marine Corps I hated the field rations when we were in Korea. Cold turkey sausage, cold powered eggs, with reused coffee that was COLD... Totally miss it.

    September 7, 2011 at 10:49 am | Reply
  21. DON63

    Sure wasn't like that on the old WASP CV-18

    September 7, 2011 at 10:46 am | Reply
  22. Shachar

    Whilst I was stationed in Virginia we had a cook (he who shall not be named) that couldn't boil water.

    September 7, 2011 at 10:34 am | Reply
  23. Sybaris

    Nothing like the smell of coffee and bacon wafting through the ship on a early North Atlantic morn.

    September 7, 2011 at 10:06 am | Reply
    • Umptysquat

      Add in the smell of fuel oil that's seeped into the water supply and you have the scenario PERFECT!!

      September 22, 2011 at 7:35 am | Reply
  24. Grothnar, Troll King

    Second! I claim this spot for trolls everywhere.

    September 7, 2011 at 9:50 am | Reply
    • Belgarath, Troll Wizard

      Until someone responds to you. Magically I'm #2 .... wait .... that's not what I ... never mind.
      Does this make you vapor's father?

      September 7, 2011 at 10:00 am | Reply
  25. alimonyjones

    My granfather was a Lieutenant Commander on sub tenders in WW II and he used to laughingly recall how the crews on the subs would clamor for their strawberries and whipped cream...

    September 7, 2011 at 7:49 am | Reply
    • Adam

      The nice thing is that Submariners eat better than most of the rest of the Navy (voice of experience here).

      September 7, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Reply
      • Lean6

        I traded submarines for aircraft carriers about 15 years ago, but before that I did 8 patrols on a Trident. That submarines have the best food thing only goes so far. It tends to depend on the Chop (Supply Officer). I remember one patrol filled with Beef Yakasoba. I really want to forget that patrol.

        September 7, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Reply
      • tim

        I second that, we use to look forward to lockouts and rubber boat insertions from subs just to get to the food. Marine Corp chow sucks even in the best of times.

        September 7, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Reply

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