Does the navy sail on its stomach?

Lifestyle - Life at Sea / April 25, 2016

By Darlene Blakeley

Nearly everyone has heard Napoleon’s expression that “an army marches on its stomach”, but what about the navy?

Well, after standing watch in -20C temperatures in the North Atlantic in February, a little hot food can go a long way to improving morale!

Ordinary Seaman David Lescombe knows all about that. Keeping his shipmates well fed with nutritious meals was his main objective when working as a cook aboard Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) St. John’s.

“While being deployed or sailing, every member understands how important the cooks are, and you will never be treated poorly,” he says with humour. “The sense of satisfaction of being a part of the bigger picture is what cooking is all about. We don’t feed the crew for money or a pay cheque, but because one of our buddies is starving or needs a bowl of warm soup after sitting in the cold all day.”

That keen sense of teamwork was a big part of OS Lescombe’s decision to join the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in 2013 as a cook. He already had some experience in that career field as he completed a one-year culinary arts apprenticeship program at Fleming College in Peterborough, Ont. He also studied business administration and marketing at Durham College in Oshawa, Ont., and then worked for a time in the food industry before deciding that the navy would be a good career choice.

“Being fourth generation military, it seemed like a path worth choosing,” he explains. “After talking to some of my childhood friends in the service as well, it was an easy decision.”

OS Lescombe says his career in the RCN so far has been “short, but amazing.” He first worked in the kitchens at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Borden, Ont., and from there was posted to Halifax in February 2015. In September he joined the crew of HMCS St. John’s and was at sea for most of the time until December.

Cooking while at sea was a new experience for OS Lescombe, but he thrived on it. “While on ship you are the morale of the team. Being appreciated is an amazing feeling day in and day out, as well as being counted on, but food speaks.”

He says he’s been an avid watcher of the Food Network since he was seven years old and sees daily the way food connects and speaks to people, no matter their language. “Having four or five ingredients and being able to transform them into something people can’t stop talking about is amazing.”

People tell him that Beef Wellington is one of his best dishes. “I was fortunate enough to cook it twice while in St. John’s,” he says. “I was picked to do a mess dinner for the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Later on we had a group of dignitaries on board for a week seeing how life was at sea, and I was hand selected to recreate that dinner as well. Both times I served it with a red-wine demi-glace and duchess potatoes.”

But those were special meals; normally working in the galley of a warship presents its own set of unique challenges. There are usually eight people working in the galley in shifts. OS Lescombe explains that day staff are in charge of salads, as well as producing the day’s meals, while night staff consists of a baker and a preparation person.

Since the crew of St. John’s numbers well over 200 people, feeding them can be “interesting”, according to OS Lescombe. “Being able to meet timings while feeding that many people is a challenge. Aboard ship everything works like clockwork and having meals out on time is critical to the ship’s daily schedule. Although the prep work is a lot more extensive and it takes longer to make a meal for 200, the quality is the same as if we were cooking for one member.”

There are some limitations on what can be cooked. For the most part, the kitchen staff follow a three-week cycle menu to help ensure the nutritional needs of the crew members are being met. Along with main courses, a variety of salads are always available, two vegetable options, and fruit at every meal.

“At sea it is extremely important to ensure proper nutrition,” OS Lescombe stresses. “Members are working extra hard during the day, using more energy. Proper health within the ship is vital, because if one member becomes sick it can spread like wildfire, affecting everyone.”

The ship has fresh food wherever possible, stocking up as necessary both at home and when deployed. “We need more food than is imaginable,” he says. “We feed so many people who come back for seconds. Being at sea constantly working creates a big appetite!”

Another important part of the cooks’ job is to ensure they can accommodate people with special requests. “We offer a vegetarian option at every meal, as well as a variety of items during each meal. Food allergies are becoming so common that cooks are used to one or two crewmates who have special requests. While cooking my second dinner I was requested to create a vegan meal. Although everyone was having Beef Wellington, we accommodated the request and created a tofu Wellington.”

As if his galley life wasn’t busy enough, like most members of the crew he has a secondary duty. In his case, it’s casualty clearing in the event of an emergency. He is part of the first aid team that responds if someone is in need of assistance, working alongside the ship’s doctors.

Although 16 hours of work a day can take a toll on the body and the work can be stressful, OS Lescombe is happy with his work and would recommend it to anyone considering a cook’s job in the navy.

“Although there are long days and the hours are especially long at sea, there is no better feeling than being part of the team,” he says.

OS Lescombe is now working ashore at CFB Halifax, cooking for military members who live on the base or choose to eat at the mess. As a secondary duty he is a member of the Base Auxiliary Security Force. While it’s not quite the same as cooking at sea, it does give him the benefit of being at home more often, where he can spend time with his wife and newborn son Noah.