Seven years ago at a hotel kitchen in Las Vegas, then-sous chef Jeremy Andersen was still mulling over what his head chef had said to his culinary school class years before.
“I always think back and I’ll never forget that day in my life when the chef came into the kitchen and told us what had happened,” said Andersen. “He said, ‘Everybody stay focused, we still have a meal to put out. It’s the least that we could do.’”
A little more than six years after Sept. 11, 2001, Andersen left his hotel staff and enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
“I always heard that the Navy food is a little above and better than the rest, and I wanted to have the pleasure to serve my country and travel the world,” said Andersen, now a Culinary Specialist 2nd Class stationed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland.
Now far from the glowing neon lights of the Las Vegas strip, Andersen is building a community through cooking, similar to the support system he said has pushed him to where he is now as a petty officer. Beyond simply preparing creative meals, Andersen finds the most reward as a chef from mentoring younger Sailors.
“It’s a lot of fun teaching these young kids that join the Navy at 18, 19 years old and they really don’t have a grasp on cooking,” he said.
Andersen gets the opportunity to take fresh novices and help shape their craft from the ground up. Doing it while serving in the Navy offers all of them unique challenges and rewards, particularly when at sea or a foreign port. If the team wants to make ribs, their order might come in as a whole pig, so Andersen and the other culinary specialists go through a complete breakdown and preparation process.
“You get to bend the rules a bit and have some fun with the menu, and you can do some different things,” Andersen said. “The challenge of cooking a meal out to sea is a unique experience of its own. Ships aren’t designed for a pleasure cruise, so they bounce around and the schedules change, and you might be doing battle feeding during general quarters, so all those challenges come about and it really tests your skills and your talents.”
Creativity and trying new dishes becomes a necessity, rather than relying on repeating recipes. Personally, however, Andersen said he does have two favorite ingredients, though his mixes up the preparation.
“I love mushrooms and I love duck, so anytime I can put duck and mushrooms together with some cognac, that’s heaven to me right there,” he said.
Back ashore, Andersen used those experiences to take home a silver medal in the Master Chef category of the 39th Annual Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event held at Fort Lee, Va., March 9-14.
Chefs from around the world coming from all services competed in multiple events to showcase their respective military branch’s kitchen prowess. For the Master Chef category, competitors were required to make a rabbit-based dish and demonstrate skills on how to use various parts including the forelegs, hind legs, and loin.
Rabbit isn’t exactly a standard item on Navy menus, Andersen said, so it had been more than eight years since he had prepared any. Nonetheless, Andersen quickly created bacon-wrapped rabbit loin and rabbit sausage, with creamy polenta and potato croquette, wilted spinach and pickled rhubarb and stone-ground mustard sauce.
Navy chefs made a good showing at the competition, with many Sailors bringing home medals from the Army-hosted event.
“We can compete with the best,” Andersen remarked. “We take our job seriously.”
Winning silver marked a great achievement, but Andersen offered much of the credit to the cadre of chefs, friends and family who supported him along the way and watched him grow as a chef. Credit was also due to the winner and judges, he added.
“If I were to get a gold medal, it wouldn’t give me anything to work toward,” Andersen said humbly. “It shows that the competition is graded by some very highly knowledgeable chefs, and they don’t want to just give away medals.”
The silver medal he now owns and the gold he looks forward to are more than just personal awards, however. Rather, he hopes the medals will help propel him and the community he’s building.
“I feel very honored,” Andersen said of the recognition. “Hopefully I can advance and make my way toward a position where I’ll have a better opportunity to train young Sailors.”