When America’s patriots put their lives on the line, the meals they consume on the battlefield or in the chow hall could be their last. That motivates many military chefs to excel in the kitchen. The Armed Forces Chef of the Year, Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Derrick Davenport is one of them.
“A lot of military chefs that I work with have the same mindset,” says Senior Chief Davenport, an enlisted aide for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “No matter if we’re on the battlefield or a submarine, we’re going to go all out and make the best food we can.”
Davenport created some of the best dishes of his military career when he competed at the 38th Annual Military Culinary Arts Competitive Training Event in Fort Lee, Va. Eighteen culinary specialists from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces competed for the Chef of the Year in March. The chefs had 30 minutes to plan a menu and three and a half hours to prepare four courses from a basket of ingredients revealed at the start of the competition.
“There were some things I wasn’t expecting in the basket, like the white sweet potatoes. But I quickly worked that in. I did a white sweet potato soup with pheasant sausage for that first course,” Davenport explains while sharing his strategy. The Senior Chief got his menu done in 10 to 15 minutes. He decided to take a “how I feel” approach in making his winning dishes.
“I learned a good deal of cooking from my grandmothers and my dad,” says Davenport. “Their food is Southern influenced. I put a little of that flair in each of the courses.” He followed the sweet potato soup with a second course of seared sea scallops and pan-fried flounder in a tomato wine broth. The third course was roasted lamb loin with an Edam cheese fritter in a red wine sauce. For dessert, he served the judges buttermilk chocolate cake drenched in Chambord with a milk chocolate cream nougat, raspberry sauce and toasted meringue.
“I couldn’t tell whether the judges thought it was good, but I thought it was good and it reflected in the medal I received.” Davenport hopes his gold medal will end the good-natured ribbing received from previous Chef of the Year winners after he missed out on the top award in previous competitions.
The American Culinary Federation sanctions the Joint CulinaryCenter’s annual event. U.S. military personnel from all over the world are given an opportunity to train with Federation-certified chefs as well as compete. Davenport’s second victory came in the international competition. He competed with the U.S. Army Culinary Arts Team that captured the first place gold medal in a win over the German team. In 2011, he led the Pentagon Culinary Arts Team to an unprecedented 55 medals, including five gold Best in Show awards.
“We worked hard. We worked on our own time and on weekends,” Davenport adds. “It takes a lot as a manager of a team to gather a bunch of people, who have lives of their own, around competing and then inspire them to the goal of winning.”
The Senior Chief’s first cooking lessons took place in his grandparents’ kitchens in Detroit. Davenport’s paternal grandmother, Eddie Beatrice Davenport, was a professional cook and baker before becoming a stay-at-home mom with nine children. His maternal grandmother, Edna Earl Jackson also taught him how to put smiles on faces with food.
Davenport has applied what he learned in Detroit, culinary school and commercial kitchens to the demands of cooking on a Navy submarine and on wood-burning stoves in Afghanistan. The Senior Chief is confident that top military chefs today are as well trained as civilian chefs and are applying higher standards of food safety than required in many restaurants. As in civilian life, they have to meet the rising expectations created by TV food shows and celebrity chefs.
“We put our name on it. We’re passionate about our job and we want the result to be empty plates coming back with satisfied customers that can go out and do their jobs,” says Davenport. Today, his most important customer is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He cooks for Gen. Martin E. Dempsey at official events and dinner parties for foreign dignitaries.
Senior Chief Davenport likes to keep it simple when he is cooking at home. He loves to bake his own bread and light up the grill in any kind of weather.
Photo credit: Advanced Food Service Training Division – Fort Lee and SCSC (SS) Derrick D. Davenport CEC, CEPC