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02-27-08, 06:38 AM
Grill sergeants

Culinary Institute of America drills Marines in kitchen maneuvers

Wednesday, February 27, 2008
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The Marines were at their stations by 0900 hours, knives in hand, ready for a tough new mission. Before the morning was out, they would slice, braise and deglaze like never before.

Their commands came from Phillip Crispo, a chef instructor who had five weeks to test the mettle of these 11 Marines in the heat of the training kitchens of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y..

It was an odd picture -- leathernecks taking orders from a chef. But the reasoning is sound.

The Marine Corps wants better cooks. So for more than a year, they have sent select Marine cooks to immersion courses at this lauded culinary school on a scenic Hudson River promontory north of New York City.

With their chef's whites and paper toques, the Marines mostly blend with the other students. That is, except for moments such as when a sergeant answered Crispo with a hearty "Oorah, Chef!"

These Marines already cook for a living. The 10 men and one woman have collectively overseen thousands of meals for troops from Virginia to Iraq.

But they never have been tested quite like this.

"The 16 years that I've done it, I thought I knew how to cook, until I got to this school," Gunnery Sgt. Reynaldo Miranda said while hustling to make beef medallions and rice. "Then the rude awakening came."

Miranda, 34, is based in Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He inspects and instructs at Marine mess halls in the East. He has worked under conditions that would make other chefs blanch, including oil barrels cut in half to create makeshift barbecue pits in Afghanistan.

But the Marines know they still have plenty to learn.

"Chef Crispo made a statement that kind of fit me to a T," said Gunnery Sgt. Daniel O'Connell, 35. "He said, 'Are you a cook like you know what you're doing? Or are you just replicating things?' That right there struck me the most, because I replicate."

Truly wretched military meals are a thing of the past -- think of long-ago sailors subsisting on salt beef or the scatological nickname soldiers gave for chipped beef on toast.

American troops in the field now eat MREs, or meals ready to eat, that include entrees such as pork ribs and spicy penne pasta. O'Connell compares modern Marine mess hall food to the stick-to-your-ribs fare at family restaurants. The Pentagon Channel television station even airs a cooking show for the troops called "The Grill Sergeants."

"It's a common misconception that military people don't eat well," Miranda said. "They do all right."

Master Gunnery Sgt. Byron Johnson of the Marine's food service program in Virginia said the goal of the training is to provide better food for Marines. He has noticed graduates of the chef course are "more fine tuned to the flavor, the eye appeal, the garnish."

The Marines are taking classes here to earn a ProChef Level I certification, which is recognized in the industry as a marker of culinary skill. Successful graduates learn everything from knife work to menu planning. Much of the coursework takes place in one of the school's multi-station kitchens under the instruction of Crispo.

"This is a learning curve for them, to take them out of that mass production, or large quantity production, and put them into what we would call fine dining with real attention to details, small portions" Crispo said. "Instead of doing 150 portions OK, we want them to do four portions perfect."

On a recent morning, Crispo told teams of students to prepare a lunch that included either sauteed beef, chicken Provencal or flounder meuniere. And at the end of the morning, they must eat their lessons.

Staff Sgt. Jesse Rogers, O'Connell and Miranda negotiate their stations with seasoned ease, occasionally slipping from chef speak to military banter.

"Does anyone need any plum tomatoes?" O'Connell asked as the cooking ensued.

"That's a negative, Ghost Rider" Miranda answered. "The pattern is full."

Crispo is the affable but demanding teacher. When Miranda took out his carefully tied and browned medallions, Crispo leaned in close and critiqued the color, evidence of a flawed searing technique.

"It's good," Crispo said. "It's not perfect."

The chef demonstrates some haute cuisine tips that the Marines will never be able to bring back at the mess hall, including the benefits of adding a dash from a $100 bottle of traditionally aged balsamic vinegar.

Still, the Marines say their sharpened skills will serve the Corps, and maybe help them after they retire. It's still years off, but O'Connell, an instructor at Fort Lee in Virginia, thinks he might cater after his military career. Miranda might open a bar or restaurant with a "military flair."

But on this morning they focused on getting their dishes plated by lunch. Crispo carefully inspected the platters under red heat lamps. Some of the portions were off, he told the Marines, but he liked how it looked.

"Very nice job," Crispo said. "Let's eat."

• • •

Marines attending the culinary immersion course at the Culinary Institute of America must display competency in everything from soups and stocks to menu planning. This impressive one-pan recipe for chicken breasts comes together in just 30 minutes.


(Recipe adapted from the Culinary Institute of America Start to finish: 30 minutes; Servings: 4)

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 cup vegetable oil

11/2 teaspoons minced garlic

1/2 cup white wine

11/2 cups diced tomatoes, drained

1 cup chicken stock

1/4 cup sliced black olives

1 anchovy fillet, mashed to a paste

1/4 cup butter, softened

2 teaspoons thinly sliced fresh basil

Preheat oven to 200 F.

Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper.

Place the flour in a wide, shallow bowl and dredge the chicken through it to lightly coat it. Shake off any excess.

In a large skillet over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the chicken breasts and saute until golden brown on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Turn the breasts and saute another 5 minutes, or until browned and cooked through.

Transfer the chicken to an oven-safe plate and place in the oven to keep warm.

Pour off most of the excess fat from the skillet, then return the pan to the heat. Add the garlic and saute briefly until aromatic. Add the wine to deglaze, stirring well to release all of the drippings.

Add the diced tomatoes, chicken stock, olives and anchovy. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for a few minutes to allow the flavors to develop. Finish the sauce by swirling in the butter.

Return the chicken breasts, along with any juices from the plate, to the skillet. Toss to coat the chicken with the sauce. Serve the chicken with the sauce. Garnish with basil.

• • •

This simple recipe for flounder sauteed in butter comes together quickly and -- with a bit more butter and some lemon juice -- creates its own sauce. It's part of a training program for Marines learning to cook at the Culinary Institute of America.


(Recipe adapted from the Culinary Institute of America Start to finish: 25 minutes; Servings: 4)

4 flounder fillets (about 4 to 5 ounces each)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

All-purpose flour

2 tablespoons clarified butter (often sold as ghee)

2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-lead parsley

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Season the flounder fillets with salt and pepper.

Place several tablespoons of flour in a wide, shallow bowl. One at a time, dredge the fillets through the flour, coating both sides and shaking off any excess. Add additional flour between fillets as needed.

In a large skillet, heat the clarified butter over medium-high. Add the fillets and saute on both sides until lightly browned and cooked through. The fish will flake easily when done.

Transfer the fillets to a serving platter and cover with foil to keep warm.

Return the skillet to the heat and add the butter. Heat until lightly browned. Add the parsley and the lemon juice to deglaze the pan. Immediately pour the finished sauce over the fish.