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Cooking for the Coast Guard

Alex Doty • Aug 3, 2018 at 12:00 PM

Providing meals to the men and women serving aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Escanaba is no small feat.

Just ask Michael Garcia, a culinary specialist on the Escanaba. He cooked for the health care industry before beginning his stint in the Coast Guard, joining as a reservist in 1998 and moving to active duty in 2009.

Garcia and his culinary team prepare meals for the ship’s crew of 100 men and women. This includes serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as midnight rations, in any and all conditions.

“No matter how rough it is, the show must go on,” he said.

The Escanaba’s homeport is Boston. It is in Grand Haven this week for the Coast Guard Festival.

The menu on the Escanaba is varied and includes items ranging from American classics like fried pork chops and mashed potatoes, burgers and hot dogs, to grilled steaks, Mexican fare and Italian dishes.

Garcia noted that accommodations are made for crew members with dietary restrictions.

“We have special diets and a gluten-free person onboard, myself included,” he said.

Some of the more popular items the crew enjoys include lobster mac and cheese, five-cheese mac and cheese, and buffalo chicken mac and cheese, Garcia said..

Another favorite is coffee — eight pots per day, to be exact.

Times have changed since the Escanaba was built in the 1980s, Garcia said. The ship’s “culinary magic” takes place in a galley and mess deck designed for TV-style dinners. Now, TV dinners have made way for freshly prepared foods, meaning storage space is filled to its fullest. 

“We try to load out as much as we can on the important stuff,” Garcia said.

While out at sea, the Escanaba will restock with fuel and food.

“We get food from all over the place,” Garcia said.

Food obtained from locations is inspected to make sure it’s up to standard and in a condition that it can be brought aboard. Garcia noted a time when there were live chickens brought to the ship, and another when meat was frozen in a block of ice — both situations that the food couldn’t be brought on board.

They also have plenty of nonperishables on board. This is helpful in case the ship is out for an extended period without the ability to restock fresh foods.

Garcia recalled a time when he was able to make a salad bar out of canned items after the Escanaba was out at sea for 28 days without restocking, only stopping in ports with enough time to refuel.

“Regardless of what you’ve got, you’ve got to make it work,” he said.

Memorable moments

Garcia notes a variety of highlights aboard the Escanaba, from preparing meals for dignitaries and change-of-command ceremonies, to taking part in culinary competitions.

The Escanaba crew participated in an international cuisine competition at a naval base in Peru in July 2017, along with representatives from Peru, Mexico, Columbia, Chile and Spain. During the event, each country was requested to provide prepared food to be sampled by more than 400 attendees. The Escanaba was the sole participant representing the U.S. and provided slow-cooked baby back ribs, Boston baked beans, coleslaw and miniature apple pies topped with an American flag made of white chocolate.

The participants were judged on tent display and food. The Escanaba was awarded first place in food and third place in tent display.

“We blew them out of the water,” noted Garcia of the food portion of the contest.

The Escanaba was also named a runner-up for the Forrest O. Rednour award for Dining Facility of the Year in 2016, and took home the top honor last year. The award honors excellence in food service in the U.S. Coast Guard.

“It is a big deal,” Garcia said.

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