by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — Leaders of the U.S. Coast Guard Food Service Specialist Program decided to bolster enlistment by sending a handful of their best and brightest to Montpelier’s own New England Culinary Institute. That way, the new highly trained food service specialists could teach elite cooking skills to others and gain usable skills to further their career. Therefore, 24 of the top food service specialists from around the country were hand-picked to study in Montpelier. Part of the deal was for those who participate to re-enlist for six more years. But why NECI?
“Several culinary schools put in bids,” said Chad Adams, chief warrant officer 4 and food service specialist program manager for the entire U. S. Coast Guard. “NECI met the requirements. They won the bid out of several competitors.” Part of the reason was the qualifications of Chef Jean-Louis Gerin, with 35 years of prestigious culinary experience begininning in Paris, France and winding up at NECI by way of a top-rated restaurant in Greenwich, Connecticut. Another factor was the safety and security of the students at this location in Central Vermont, Adams said.
The Coast Guard is further looking to upgrade the quality of the food and give the cooks in charge of the kitchens more autonomy. “We do everything from scratch. No big, bulk boil-in-the-bag. Our guys do farm to table,” Adams said.
It turns out there is one advanced cooking school for the entire military (inlcuding Army, Navy and Marines) in Fort Lee, Virginia, but they only train 12 Coast Guard members per year. This is a very small percentage of cooks working on the Coast Guard’s numerous food service facilities throughout the United States. It takes 1,250 lead cooks to manage the 1,250 kitchens (ashore and afloat) in order to feed 39,000 “Coasties” as they call themselves informally.
The Bridge met two such Coasties during the interview with the commanders including Adams and Justin Reed, food service rating force master chief. The students were Sonata Haley of California and Jeremy Biladeau of Oregon. Both spoke enthusiastically about learning the deeper arts and sciences of food preparation taught by highly respected chefs, including Gerin.
“We are fortunate to have this kind of experience. This is great,” Haley said. Haley’s kitchen is on a Blacktip cutter stationed in Oxnard, California. Haley said she hadn’t planned on studying culinary arts, but when she joined the coast guard, she gravitated towards it. She said she is grateful for being one of the few chosen to study at NECI.
As for Biladeau, he said that when he first joined the Coast Guard he bonded to the food service specialist where he was stationed. It was he who influenced Biladeau to become a food service person himself. “I’ve always loved food.” Biladeau said he started out in the Marine Corps, but when he got into the Coast Guard he was pleasantly surprised to find out the food service specialists were not limited to using frozen foods and the like. “It is up to the food service specialists to create their own meals in their own vision,” Biladeau said. “I love it. It is a fantastic opportunity.” Biladeau works on a bouy tender cutter stationed in Newport, Rhode Island.
The food service specialists will be hosting a 75-person V.I.P. final dinner on October 15 before leaving town. And for these highly specialized professionals, food is more than food. “Food is morale,” Adams said.