Thousands of Marines serving aboard the USS Peleliu will get a taste of Show-Me State hospitality with their Thanksgiving dinner this year. A team of MU students majoring in hotel and restaurant management will grill, boil and bake — not to mention dress up the buffet — to make the holiday meal at sea more pleasant.
Leslie Jett, a chef and instructor in MU’s hotel and restaurant management program, and six of his students will board the naval ship today as part of the U.S. Navy’s “Adopt-a-Ship” program. The program gives civilian chefs the opportunity to work in naval kitchens, instructing their culinary specialists on new techniques and more efficient ways to cook for their crews.
For the next six days, Jett and the students will spend hour upon hour in the ship’s kitchens, called galleys, immersing themselves in naval life.
This is Jett’s eighth voyage and his second year in Adopt-a-Ship; he took a student crew last year as well. The MU crew is the only student team to participate in the program.
Most of the students — five men and one woman — are instructional assistants for Jett’s hotel and restaurant management classes.
Laura Clark, who comes from a big military family, jumped at the opportunity to get involved. Clark, an MU senior, said she does not mind being the only woman in the group.
“I am mostly nervous about being a civilian on a Navy ship,” Clark said. “I don’t want to be perceived as just a college student and not be taken seriously.”
Jett has taken measures to ensure his team is prepared. They have done a variety of catering and have taught groups of all ages throughout the semester.
On Friday, most of the crew and Jett were in the kitchen at MU’s Eckles Hall getting ready for a catered VIP luncheon. As the students sliced vegetables and prepared fish, Jett went over last-minute details for the trip. New chef jackets seemed to bring more excitement than anything else.
They have cooked for big luncheons and events but never for as many people as they will aboard the Peleliu, an amphibious assault ship.
“It’s a great learning experience for the students, and they are excited about what they are going to take in, especially regarding mass production,” Jett said. “They are going to be involved in and experiencing turning out meals for two to three thousand people.”
The chefs face a strenuous week. They will rise as early as 4 a.m. and work throughout the day, ending about 6 p.m. after the dinner rush. Seth Weinberg, a student on last year’s Adopt-a-Ship, said they were often so exhausted that they would go to sleep as soon as the shift ended.
Jett and the students were scheduled to go sightseeing in San Diego on Sunday, to have to have some fun before the long week. They also planned to pick up supplies and ingredients before boarding.
A challenge for cooking on a deployed ship is that the food supply must last as many as 45 days, Jett said. The culinary specialists strive to cut down on wasting food while still providing different and appealing meals.
The Navy sent Jett topics in which they would like instruction. The MU group will teach on four areas: herbs and spices, soups and sauces, knife skills and bakery techniques. They will also work on visual preparations such as napkin-folding, table-setting and “dressing up the buffet.”
“(The Navy’s culinary specialists) have the experience of feeding 3,000,” said Dan Meyer, one of the MU team. “We’re just there to help them do it better.”
The Navy has many regulations about the food that is served, so the group will work with a menu that is already set. However, the group will help create Thanksgiving dinner, drawing from their own recipes and recipes from the Marines.
Clark said she does not mind spending the holiday away from her family this year.
“I have never been farther west than Kansas,” she said. “I’m excited to say that I spent Thanksgiving on a ship.”
The group will be divided among the three galleys in the ship. They will rotate throughout the week, experiencing new people and new settings daily. Clark said she is looking forward to being around people of different backgrounds. She foresees herself learning from them, even though her role is to teach.
Jett said he expects that each of the students will get something different out of the trip.
“Everyone is going down different career paths,” he said.
Clark, for instance, wants to be a pastry chef. She hopes to spend some time in the ship’s bake shop.
“I think they will gain a perspective they never even dreamed of or thought was out there,” Jett said.
Brian Moxey, another student chef, will graduate this December, then will attend the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. He looks to the trip eagerly.
“I think it’s going to be a really unique experience,” Moxey said. “A once-in-a-lifetime deal.”