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A 4-Star Mess Hall for a Day

Times Staff Writer

This wasn’t the grub that veterans tell war stories about.

No, the food filling the Marine Corps mess hall in Tustin on Thursday was haute cuisine , military issue: fish swimming in seas of blue gelatin; bread in the shape of a volcano, which emitted smoke from dry ice stuffed inside; a village of gingerbread and candy; mounds of pate molded in the shape of puppies, and ice sculptures surrounded by luscious fruit.

It was the annual Marine Corps culinary-arts competition, where the mess hall chefs from the bases at Tustin, El Toro and Camp Pendleton find out who is the cream of the crop.

Military food has improved, officials said, but this is not the stuff that normally gets plopped on the Marines’ trays. “Normally, what they (the contestants) have to do is serve three square meals a day to thousands of Marines,” said Staff Sgt. Richard Ness, spokesman for the Tustin base. “This gives them the opportunity to . . . show off what they can do.”

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The rule is that everything must be edible--even if the food has to be chucked afterward from sitting at room temperature too long, said Master Sgt. Jeff B. Cockrane, who runs the Tustin mess hall--which has been rated among the best mess halls in the corps. Winners receive trophies and the grand prize winner is given a chance to work with restaurant chefs.

This year’s overall winner was Sgt. Raymond Champion of the Tustin base, for his village scene of gingerbread houses on a lawn of green-dyed coconut. Stop signs were made of icing; streets were fashioned out of strips of gum.

The meat category prize went to a liver pate shaped like two dogs--one lying down and the other sitting up--made by chefs Pfc. Candy Carlisey and Cpl. Melissa Gravila of Camp Pendleton.

Staff Sgt. Willie Felder and Pfc. Richard Vitcusky of Camp Pendleton took the poultry award by literally dressing two turkeys--like bride and groom, standing under an arch and surrounded by flowers.

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The award for fish went to a display of salmon poised in a pool of blue gelatin, accompanied by cantaloupes carved to look like dolphins. Its creators were Lance Cpl. Daryl Jackson and Lance Cpl. James Wilson of Camp Pendleton.

In the cake category, a green Japanese-style dragon, baked and decorated by Sgt. Filipo Bartley of El Toro, tied with the chocolate-mousse-and-whipped-cream creations of the husband-wife team of Gail and William Spade of Tustin.

The freestyle award went to a lighthearted creation of potato people skiing down a mountain of powdered sugar, the work of Cpl. Jim Gage and Sgt. Joe Clevenger of Tustin.

And where was that age-old favorite dish of the military, chipped beef on toast, fondly known as SOS? (No, that doesn’t stand for “same old stuff.”)

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None of the chefs entered that, said Tustin’s mess hall chief, Cockrane. “No, ma’am, they would get blown out with that.”


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