Aboard the USS George HW Bush: How to cook dinner for 5,000

The USS George HW Bush was moored in Jebel Ali port on the weekend, and those responsible for feeding the thousands of personnel on board offered insight into how hunger is handled at sea.

Sailors having lunch in one of the dining areas on board the George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier in port at Jebel Ali.
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Moored in Jebel Ali port for just a few days over the weekend before being deployed back out into the Arabian Sea, the USS George HW Bush is an impressive, if intimidating, sight to behold. At 1,092 feet long, this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is one of the world's largest warships, capable of speeds exceeding 30 knots.

The carrier was commissioned on January 10, 2009, at Norfolk Naval Station, Virginia, before being delivered to the US Navy on May 11, 2009. Because of its nuclear power, the George HW Bush requires refuelling every 25 years. But for the 5,000 Navy personnel on board, it's a different story: energy levels need to be replenished on an almost constant basis.

Senior Chief Francis Patol, the vessel's leading culinary specialist, estimates that this means his team of 93 cooks produces between 16,000 to 18,000 meals a day, from 6am breakfasts through to the aptly named "mid rats" (midnight rations). In order to do this, planning is crucial: the chefs follow a 15-day set menu cycle and receive replenishments at sea (both dry and fresh goods) once a week.

The George HW Bush has seven galleys (kitchens).

"We spend somewhere between US$45,000 to $65,000 [Dh165,300-Dh238,800] a day on food when we're at sea," says Patol, who joined the US Navy 24 years ago and has notched up some 14 sea years since then. "That's $1.8 million a month."

To put the volume of food consumed on board into perspective, when the chefs serve chicken wings (a favourite in the General Mess as a dinner option), they cook up more than 1,600 kilograms at a time.

The main galley, while not overly spacious, is well equipped for catering on such a mass scale: huge pans, with the capacity to hold upwards of 70 gallons, line the walls. There are several large contraptions designed for steaming vegetables, a 60lb-dough mixer for making bread, as well as several industrial ovens, grills and deep-fat fryers.

In one corner, a young cook mans a vast stove; he arranges lamb chop after lamb chop in neat rows, until the entire surface is covered with meat - 150 chops at least. By the time the last one is in place, it's time to return to the beginning and flip the meat over to cook on the other side.

It's almost 5pm and the main eating bay is starting to fill up. Sailors file along the serving line, pointing out what they'd like to eat: mashed potato and steak with gravy is proving to be a popular choice, but there's also BBQ chicken, stir fry, pasta and chicken with tomato sauce on offer. Three young sailors, Jennifer Pena, Elvin Carmona Rivera and Sarah Strong, are lingering in the cafeteria area, having just finished their meals. They say that while the food on board is perfectly fine - the special fried rice is a particular favourite - they do crave homemade rather than mass-produced meals.

"I look forward to eating something that's cooked from scratch, just for me," says Strong. "This is OK, but you can tell that it's been prepared for hundreds of people."

"Your mother's cooking, that's what you miss - things like homemade lasagne," says Rivera.

Wardroom Officer Ryan Stickel says when he disembarks from the USS George HW Bush there's one dish he seeks out in particular.

"The first meal I ever ate with my wife was pizza, and every Friday night when I'm at home, that's what we have with our boys. So wherever I am, that's what I try to find - it reminds me of them."

For everyone on board, food plays an important role in maintaining morale. As a treat for the sailors in the General Mess, Patol tries to modify the menus whenever he can.

"We'll make Asian-style egg rolls, hold ice cream socials, serve a special menu on Labour Day, for example," he says. "Taco Tuesday is always popular and my bakers make cakes regularly - for re-enlistments, milestone events, or if someone is leaving - as long as we can afford it, we do it."

This awareness of food or mealtimes as a means of keeping spirits high is just as important in the Wardroom, which is where the officers eat. "Brunch is served on a Friday, which is usually a no-fly day," Stickel says. "We dim the lights, the food-service attendants wear tuxedos and the meal lasts for a few hours. It feels a bit special and gives the officers a chance to relax.

"Doing things like this is really important. It makes the officers happy, meaning that they perform at optimum and accomplish their missions 100 per cent. It also gives our cooks a chance to show what they can do."

The Wardroom is smaller and more refined than the canteen area where the sailors eat. It's by no means fancy, but the chairs are padded, the tables covered with heavy navy tablecloths and glasses of coke are garnished with slices of lemon.

LPO (Leading Petty Officer) Thomas Blaha, the man in charge of the Wardroom, explains: "The cooks here follow the same 14-day menu cycle as those in the General Mess, but because we're catering for smaller numbers - serving between 250 to 300 officers a day - we can afford to take more time with the presentation and use different cooking techniques."

A few levels up, a quick peek into the Captain's Cabin, where Commanding Officer Captain Brian Luther eats his meals, reveals a modest-sized room with hints of the old-fashioned ocean liner about it: the tablecloths are starched brilliant white and the cutlery gleams.

In the adjacent kitchen, 25-year-old Leesa Zilempe, the Commanding Officer's personal chef, is preparing vegetables for his evening meal. Zilempe cooks for Captain Luther and his guests on a daily basis and refrains from planning her menus weeks in advance.

"I like to work with whatever I can find on the day - fresh ingredients preferably," she says. "I try to use the best quality I can and avoid using canned goods if possible."

When preparing the food for one of the Captain's dinner parties, she says she tends to veer towards French: "confit duck, individual desserts - pastries, tarts, things like that".

At this point, Captain Luther himself appears in search of a glass of lemonade. He is quick to shower Zilempe with praise. "She is awesome. We have very senior people for dinner and everyone has raved about her cooking."

Zilempe strives to use even very few ingredients to greatest advantage.

"We've hardly got any vegetables left at the moment, but I'm going to steam these carrots and peppers and serve them with basil mash and roasted halibut," she says, adding with a modest grin: "That sounds pretty good, doesn't it?"