Chef Fred Papouban, no doubt feeling a bit like Pygmalion, on Monday surveyed his new pupil, who was carefully wielding a knife and skinning part of a 280-pound swordfish.
“This is a mission impossible, but we’ll see what we can do,” said Papouban, one of the chefs at the Hotel Inter-Continental and a gregarious man who has practiced the culinary arts for 17 years.
Papouban’s task is to transform three Navy cooks--known in military jargon as “mess management specialists"--into gourmet chefs in six weeks.
“I don’t know how we can squeeze years of training and experience to create a new chef in such a short period of time,” Papouban said, his French accent flowing sweetly in the air. “The best we can do is teach them our standards and expose them to dishes outside the military experience.”
The military dining experience to which Papouban refers is better known for mashed potatoes than chicken kiev, but both the chef and the Navy are undaunted.
The idea for such gourmet training originated with the commander of the guided-missile cruiser Truxtun, a nuclear-powered ship based in San Diego. The ship’s commander, Thomas Keithly, among other things, wanted to impress visiting dignitaries at receptions, buffets and lunches to be given aboard ship at foreign ports.
“There are numerous paybacks to this,” said Lt. Cmdr. Eric Sorensen, who made the arrangements with the Inter-Continental for Keithly. “No doubt one of those paybacks is creating a meal for our officers and visitors which will enhance the dining experience.”
“We’re looking for the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. We’re concerned about the quality of the day-to-day meals. That might mean adding a garnish to a meal line or to an entree,” said Sorensen, quickly adding that nothing he said should be taken as an indictment of Navy cooking.
“It’s just that we can do better.”
The three Navy cooks will undergo six weeks of training under the tutelage of several chefs in the huge basement kitchen of the waterfront hotel, one of San Diego’s newest and biggest.
On Monday, Mike Powell, a 21-year-old seaman apprentice from Colorado whose most complex food creation until now has been baking pies, traded in his Navy uniform for the white trappings of a chef.
As he deboned the swordfish, Powell, the first of the trainees, said, “I cooked at home some before this, but that’s about it. I’m picking up skills that will help me on the ship for the officers . . . so we can feed them better.”
Asked whether his new-found skills would also trickle down to the Truxtun’s 550 enlisted men, Powell replied, “This will benefit not just the officers but the whole crew. If we prepare the food properly, everyone will have a better attitude about eating.”
The six weeks of instruction--provided free by the hotel--will include compressed how-to courses in butchering, preparation of cold plates and salads, cooking of meats and fish, organizing a buffet, the art of pastry making and, finally, French cuisine.
“The idea is to end the training with the more classical cooking, preparing French dishes which can be served to 15 to 20 people, while maintaining a high standard” Nejat Sarp, the hotel’s food and beverage manager, interjected as he helped lead a tour of the kitchen.
“We know they (the new Navy chefs) can’t do the same thing on a ship they can here,” Sarp explained. “But we think this is the first step toward a new type of kitchen for the Navy.”
Graduation ceremonies for the new chefs will consist of preparing a French meal, served to members of the hotel staff and some of the Truxtun’s 50 officers.