How much say does a military cook have in the menu?

I recall reading some article or Quora where a submariner said that if his boat’s chef was a Southerner, he’d make great Southern food, but if it was a New Englander he made great clam chowder, etc.

Does a military chef get any say in what ingredients come his way? Could a Louisianan head cook say, “I want to make lots of crawfish ettouffee; have Supply send lots of crawfish my ship’s way?”

You might or might not have say over what ingredients you get, but you certainly have say in what you do with those ingredients.

My uncle was in the Army, stationed in Germany. He always loved getting sent on errands to the Air Force side of the base, because that meant that he’d get to eat in the Air Force chow hall instead of the Army. He said they got all the same supplies as the Army did, but where the Army cooks would just dump everything in a big pot and heat it, the Air Force would actually put some effort into it.

I’ve heard that the Navy has the best food of any of the services, and so it’s possible that a Navy chef is able to requisition the specific ingredients he wants. But I can’t speak specifically to that.

Smarter Every Day (Youtube channel) has a series on board a nuclear sub.

From my Army days it seems like both the cooks were always locals, and I expect the groceries were fairly local as well. So yes, you got good southern food in the south, and in San Antonio we had these little abuelas cranking out the best Tex-Mex food I ever had.

It varies a lot. The bigger the boat the worst the food in the mess halls generally.
The Chiefs eat very well on almost any ship. Usually better than the officers.
On a Carrier or the Battleships enlisted food was often crap. On Destroyers and Frigates it was often quite excellent. The amount of crew being cooked for makes the biggest difference.

The Carriers at sea have 5000-6000 men. Battleships were 2000 in the 80s more in Korea & WWII. We tended to get fresher meat, produce and milk but you try cooking 4 meals a day for over 4000 men.

A Destroyer is only about 300 and a Frigate less, I recall about 200. Even Cruisers are only about 500.

I can’t speak to subs at all, that is a whole different thing.

Advantages for the Carrier, we had an excellent Bake Shop on the USS Ranger. We had a donut machine. Fresh baked dinner rolls every dinner. Cakes, cinnamon rolls (mainly for the Chiefs & Officers but if you were the electrician that repaired their equipment, you got treats).

We thought we had grade ‘C’ hamburgers but it turned out we had grade ‘A’ frozen burgers and our mess decks were just terrible to burgers. When I was mess cranking, our sr. mess cook didn’t show one night for midrats (midnight meal up forward mess decks.) The remaining mess cook was a raw boot straight from training with about 2 weeks on the ship. He panicked and went looking for health. So I asked the other mess cranks who had fast food experience. I had worked Wendy’s and Friendly’s and 2 others at McDonalds. So 2 of us ran the grill serving up fresh burgers and one ran the Frisbo Fry machine. Everything was going from grill to plates instead of grill to sitting on warming trays for over an hour.

We had high praise that night for the burgers. The quality was fine, the process was flawed.

Anyway, our food was generally prepared poorly. Too much cooked ahead of time and left warming too long.

Same food for the Chiefs was prepared much better.

Our coffee was terrible also, but the supply was unlimited 24 hours a day.

Same with USAF. The student chow hall at Chanute AFB fed thousands in shifts and the food was modest but OK because it did not sit for long.

As an instructor we had a modern, dedicated facility. The mess sergeant saved his budget for the few troops who stayed on base over the holidays. I stayed on base in 1954 and we had turkey and ham with all the trimmings for Christmas and huge steaks cooked to order for New Years.

In my career, my experience with the chow was the following, from best to worst:

Air Force
Navy (Fleet, Naval Air bases)

I’m not sure how the Marines were able to screw up food so badly, but they were consistently good at it.

We were told it was on purpose. :slight_smile:

I should mention, my Dad was Air Force in the early 50s. Spent a good chunk of that time in Iceland as he was a weatherman. Apparently they had a small mess and most things were cooked to order. Steak & Lamb were cheap or readily available and my Dad enjoyed that very much. He thought the food there was exceptionally good.

He was also stationed in Rome, NY for training and like most training bases, the food wasn’t very good.

I served on a misesweeper, a destroyer, and an aircraft carrier, all in the last 15 years, as an officer, eating in the wardroom. It was all crap. The food all comes from the same supply system, with maybe (maybe) some local supplementation for highly perishable goods like fruit. Maybe. There is nothing special about any of it. All the things that might have made things seem special or unique like bakeries are “used to haves.” Again. It’s all the same supplies. It’s all crap. To the extent there is any preparation involved, my experience is it was never very good.

No one is ever going to get US Navy cooperation to make a documentary about how bad food is. If it requires US Navy cooperation (you can’t just walk onto a ship or sun and start filming), it’s going to be highly flattering to the Navy. I think the best description of military food prep comes to us through fiction, specifically Apocalypse Now when the “chef” character describes how horrified he was going through the Navy’s cooking school and how they just utterly destroyed otherwise serviceable ingredients in preparing to serve on a mass scale quick. That’s my take.

I had better food in Iraq.

On subs the whole crew eats the same food – the officers get served in the weirdroom wardroom and the chiefs’ mess is one specific six-man table on the mess decks, but their food comes from the same pots, pans and grill that everyone else’s does. Quality of the food varied from cook to cook, just as one might expect; some were bad, at least one varied from bad to very good according to what mood he was in, and I’ve served with a couple who definitely deserve to be called “chefs”, not just “cooks”. A major difference between the boats (I was on three) and the one skimmer I was assigned to was portion control – it was rigorously applied on the ship, but on the boats you served yourself.

Weekly menus were made up ahead of time for breakfast (served 0500-0600), lunch (1100-1200), and supper (1700-1800); I never paid enough attention to see if they were repeating menus (they probably were) or if so, how often. Said menus were prepared by the chop and the senior cooks, and approved by the captain, after which supplies would be ordered to match the menus. The food was what you might expect at home – eg eggs, bacon, and pancakes for breakfast (you stopped at the serving window on the way to your seat to tell them how you wanted your eggs). Midrats (2300-2400) were served only at sea, and might consist of leftovers from lunch or supper, or tinned ravioli (aka “death pillows”) or beanie-wienie. Sliders and fries for lunch on Friday were a given, as was pizza for midrats on Saturday and the last night before return to port.

A few weeks before my last deployment there was a meeting – the chop, the two senior cooks (chief and first class), and a representative from each division. We discussed what items should be dropped from the menus or at least served less frequently, and what might be added. I suggested adding lamb, as an occasional change from the usual beef, pork and chicken, and they actually did order some and add it to the menus.

Ask and ye shall receive… (warning: PDF):


306070.pdf (

My brother was in the Air Force in the early 1960s, mostly at a base in SW Louisana and the food was fairly lousy. He eventually got to know one of the cooks who invited him to have dinner at his own house. Turned out he had stolen subrepted a lot of the best food.

When I was in the Air Force (early to mid -80s) at some bases the chow halls were run by military cooks, and others were outsourced to civilian companies.

Thanks for the replies everyone, but most of these don’t answer the question. I am not asking if the Air Force cooks better chow than the Army, or whether cooks pour everything into a cauldron and mix together. I am asking if a military cook gets any control over what ingredients he gets (can he say, “no onions, I don’t plan on using any of those, but please send more cauliflower flour so I can make diabetic-friendly pizza, and also some more maple syrup for a dessert recipe I want to use?”

And are there certain foods a cook is almost legally obligated to make, or is he allowed to dictate the menu as he pleases?

I heard on quora or somewhere that they might or might not get to choose.

Based on the PDF I sent, it looks like the menus are largely preset for field food. As in, the cooks get a UGR-A (2011 menus) Menu 7 that comes with the following:

Grilled steak, Peppers & onions, Natural potato wedges, Chocolate decadence cake, Green beans, Brown gravy, Vanilla pudding, Lemon lime beverage, Ketchup, Steak seasoning, Vegetable
seasoning, Butter granules, Vegetable oil, Everything sauce

Lunch/Dinner Menus include salt, pepper, coffee, and nondairy creamer and are supplemented with one 8 oz. UHT milk carton per individual. Enhancements include two slices of bread, fresh fruit, and salad when possible.

There are 2011 and 2012 menus listed with about 14 lunch/dinner and 7 breakfast options on each. There’s also a “short-order” set of 7 with things like hamburgers, philly cheesesteaks, chicken wings, etc…

My first time in the fleet was as a midshipman on a cruiser. I worked, slept, and ate with the enlisted I was assigned to shadow. One time in month I was onboard, as a “treat”, we had lunch in the wardroom with the officers. I think we got boiled hotdogs or some shit. The explanation was that officers had to pay for their own meals, and they were cheap, so they generally ate crap compared to the crew.

On the submarine, officers still paid for their meals (the Chop presented us with a bill at the end of patrol), but as @SCAdian said, we ate the same food as the rest of the crew. Our head cook was generally quite skilled, and made absolutely amazing gumbo. Tying back to the OP, I’m pretty sure he was from Louisiana.

@SCAdian lays it out pretty well, if not explicitly. There are these things called menu review boards, which pretty well constrain what the cooks are to prepare. That said, every now and then one of the 19-year old “culinary specialists” serving in the galley will be allowed to “express” themselves by ruining a meal, which the crew then has to eat, such as by dumping a bunch of cheesy goo onto the chicken due to be served for lunch. In general, I am not a fan of allowing the cooks any discretion, but of course it happens. To an extent. Not necessarily for the better as you posit in your OP.

You might also find this article from a few years back helpful (keeping in mind it is, like all documentaries shot on ship, navy approved, and therefore biased in its representations):

The answer is less than you think, but more than none. They are very constrained as to proteins and general nutrition, and the need to feed thousands of troops pretty much kills innovation and subtlety. OTOH… scroll to page 152 for Jean Shepherd’s take in “Banjo Butt Meets Julia Child.”

There is also a lot you can do with spicing, and good cooks will liven things up when they can.

That’s why my dad volunteered for the Navy in WWII.