Sourcing culinary education locally

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif.—Marines at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, in Twentynine Palms, Calif., recently got a taste of the unfamiliar when Joseph Chu, owner of local Red Lotus Restaurant joined Marine cooks for a day to teach them how to prepare some of the restaurant’s signature Vietnamese and Thai dishes. The flavors, spices and preparation techniques of tom kha soup, chicken galangal soup and cum suon nuong (grilled pork steaks) were introduced to the crew to broaden their skills and palates.

“The Marines had so many questions,” says June Richardson, area operations manager for Sodexo at Twentynine Palms base. “And it’s not like our typical Thai food. It was a new experience for them.” The foodservice staff weren’t the only ones who benefitted. The Marines who dine in the mess hall also enjoyed the break from the traditional 21-day cycle menu. “It’s like a monotony breaker for them,” Richardson adds.

This isn’t the first time an outside chef has come to the base. Richardson and her team have brought in chefs and local restaurateurs about four times a year for the past three years in order to expose troops to new food experiences and cooking techniques. Richardson says the goal of the guest chef program is to expose Marine Cooks to different retail outlets and restaurants so they can learn additional skills and gain experience for when they transition out of the Marine Corps.

Most Marine cooks are assigned to the kitchen despite having little cooking experience. Working with guest chefs not only exposes them to new flavors and techniques, but it impacts their confidence in the kitchen as well. “I can see little differences and it’s getting a little bit better and presentation is a little bit better,” Richardson says of the food following a guest chef’s visit. “I think that’s a huge thing in the Marine Corps. It’s very standard cafeteria style, and for them to be able to see different ways of presenting food, right after that I can see them making an effort, embellishing a little bit more on the garnishing, things like that.”

Typically, the Sodexo team purchases the ingredients to make the restaurant’s popular dishes for the meal service, while the guest donates his recipes along with his time. To find the guest chefs, Richardson and other management staff simply pluck them from their own dining experiences. “It doesn’t even have to be local, it’s just a restaurant that we go to and really, really enjoy and we’re not shy about asking management there if they’d be willing [to visit]. So far 100% of the time they’re more than willing to volunteer their time and their resources for the Marines,” she says.

In September, the cooks will try their hands at Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes when local restaurant Palm Kabob House visits the base’s kitchen.