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.
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.