Appreciating our Naval Chefs

Sunday, December 22, 2013

So what kind of food do our Navy boys long for after weeks out at sea?

I had the opportunity to find out during a visit to RSS Endurance which was docked at Vivocity.

For a week in November this year, it was open house for the Endurance as the Navy sought to be more visible and connect with the public. Unlike our army which is more visible on our streets, along with reservist soldiers in their green fatigues, our navy men and women, in their sartorial splendour of white or light grey, are mostly out at sea and away from home when on duty.

The Navy, mostly invisible to the public eye, was reaching out.

As they thought their kitchen may be of some interest, some food bloggers were invited, including "cooking ones" like myself to see how their chefs work.

When the ship is out at sea - sometimes for months - their only food source is their own galley (a term for the kitchen in a vessel). Understandably, cooking is not out-sourced and the Navy hires their own chefs.

The galley
With the rolling and heaving movements of the ship, cooking in the galley has its challenges. And it gets worse in stormy weathers. The pots are bolted down. You will not find a traditional wok in the galley. Stir-frying is done in a "sink", with heated elements all round to approximate the wok-effect. Holding bars across the top are necessary for the chefs to hang on to. Only heated elements are used and there are no naked flames. Even with all these, food spillages are not uncommon and there are the occasional galley frustrations.

How do you source for ingredients when you are out at sea? We imagine that navy-men will be fishing for their dinners but they are not out on a cruise. They don't drag cows and sheep onboard. The chefs rely on what is in the cold storerooms which are meticulously stocked, sometimes with ingredients prepared while on land e.g. sambal chilli. The chefs also become familiar with what is available in different ports. A port visit is an opportunity to stock up.

And what will our Navy men and women miss most when out at sea? Not surprisingly, local favourites such as laksa, bak chor mee, prata and so on. As there is little entertainment on board, meals become an important source of comfort and reminders of home.

Flag ceremony at sunset
An interesting point to note, the Navy ship is a sovereign national space. The tradition of hoisting the flag at sunset is still being practised. In other words, when you are on the ship, you are on Singapore "land." Thus, the Endurance also plays an ambassadorial role in bringing a bit of home to Singaporeans overseas. When they come onboard, the experience of home is completed by the serving of home dishes.

Naval Chefs Jagen and Wisley Tan
We met Wisley Tan & Jagen, both Shatec-trained, and had conversations with them about their experiences in the galley.

Wisley also cooks in a submarine, and that is really something. Why a Naval Chef?  He believes that a Naval Chef faces more challenges than a hotel chef. Cooking while the ship is out sailing in the seas is very different from the stable environment in a hotel. He also has to work under pressure and meet the expectations of his colleagues.After all, while on board, they have no choice but come back time after time for his dishes.

Wisley likes to experiment with cooking local hawker food and fusing it with other cuisine types or cooking methods. I had some discussions with him regarding the feasibility of using Sous Vide in the galley. I can see some interesting advantages of introducing this cooking method.

Jagen currently cooks at Endurance. His signature dish is mee rebus and his familiarity with spicy cooking makes him a favourite with the boys.

I think we are beginning to appreciate the unique and difficult work of the Navy chefs.

We wish them all the best and may they stay creative and continue to keep our Navy boys happy. 

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  1. When I was a midshipman, I had to help out in the galley too. There was once where the sea state was so bad and the pot of rice toppled over the edge - rice for over 60 men - just wasted like that!

    The food can really affect the morale of the ship crew, and before posting to a ship, you always pray that you get a good chef, because it matters when you are miles away from home!

    You saw the galley onboard the LST, which is the most spacious in the RSN. The galleys onboard the other classes of ships, ie missile corvettes, submarines etc is only a quarter of the LST galley.

    It's really amazing how our naval chefs can cook such amazing dishes. Our chefs are all first-aid trained too. This is especially important onboard the smaller classes of ships where we do not have the luxury of manpower - many people have to wear multiple hats.