It's lunchtime aboard the nuclear attack submarine Jefferson City and the tired crew -- some bearing fresh grease stains on their work overalls -- fills the tiny dining room, clearly ready to chow down.
On cue, mess specialist Richard Youhan begins slicing a 25-pound prime rib roast into half-inch-thick pieces, before gingerly transferring the second entree, baked lobster tails with spicy Old Bay Seasoning, onto a serving tray.
Sauteed mushrooms, baked potatoes and beef rice soup come next, with baskets full of hot, oven-baked bread that was made from scratch. For dessert Youhan, a petty officer 3rd class and former French pastry baker from Cypress, has prepared chocolate and lemon cakes made with real chocolate and freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Welcome to submarine life, where the Navy's chefs prepare what is widely considered to be the military's finest dining experience. Because nuclear subs stay submerged for as long as 90 days straight, serving better food is a way to make up for what is considered to be one of the toughest assignments in the military.
"When we're out to sea, the highlight of the day is food. There is not much else to look forward to," says senior mess specialist Salvador Rico, a petty officer 1st class and an 11-year veteran of the nation's nuclear submarine fleet.
Tom Clancy, best-selling author of "The Hunt for Red October," has raved about submarine food, writing that the dining experience is "truly a pleasure, as the Navy goes all out to give the men the best chow the taxpayer's money can buy."
Much about submarine life, particularly in the nuclear fleet, was kept secret during the Cold War.
But the closely held tradition surrounding submarine cuisine -- long dismissed as a myth outside the Navy -- has recently begun to emerge.
The Food Network cable channel has produced a television show devoted to food served aboard subs, and a cookbook is in the works with the working title "Deep Comfort: Cooking Secrets From America's Submarine Service."
The tradition dates to World War II, when sailors jealously marveled at a submarine's food inventory, which often included steak, lobster and freshly made sausage. It was on a sub that the Navy's first fresh milk dispenser was installed in 1960 after Congress passed legislation overruling Pentagon officials who had argued there was no room for it.
"Food was a reward for hazardous duty," says retired Vice Adm. Joe "Jumping Joe" Williams, who commanded the Atlantic submarine fleet before leaving the Navy in 1977 after 30 years of service.
"We had three things going for us: The quality of food and the amount that was served. The music on board. And the reading materials. But food was a very, very important component."
Submarine cooks don't just peel potatoes, says Lt. Cmdr. Steve Benke, the Jefferson City's executive officer. "They're going to culinary school."
And not just any ordinary schools or restaurants. One of the nation's top chef schools, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., regularly trains submarine cooks. So have some of the best-known restaurants in the country, including the "21" in New York, the Cloister in Georgia and Emeril's in New Orleans. After leaving the Navy, some submarine cooks have wound up teaching at the Culinary Institute or becoming chefs at fashionable restaurants such as the Park Avenue Cafe in Manhattan.
Williams recalls sending his cooks to the Stork Club or the Algonquian Room in the 1950s when his subs docked in New York.
For the submarine cooks, it was a life-altering experience. "We would have these meat-and-potato guys, most of them from the heartland, who would be exposed to things they've never seen before and they'd finish their Navy careers more worldly than most of us," Williams says. The tradition has grown to where a sub might have several restaurants and schools it can tap for training.
Even when the subs are deployed the cooks may spend a few days getting tips from local restaurants while docked at a port in Japan or Spain. The crew of the Jefferson City, for instance, got Australian cooking tips last year from one of that country's more acclaimed chefs while visiting Perth.
Their culinary skills also have resulted in many submarine cooks landing jobs in the White House. The Air Force flies the president, the Marines help provide his security, but it's the Navy chefs -- often former submarine cooks -- who prepare his meals.
That tradition dates to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former undersecretary of the Navy who later had Navy cooks prepare his meals when he used the presidential yacht. President Truman later extended those responsibilities to the White House.
Recently, a Times reporter boarded the Jefferson City when it was docked at the Point Loma sub base near the mouth of San Diego Bay.
The Navy's fleet of 73 submarines -- all powered by nuclear reactors -- is divided into two classes.
The 18 large "boomer" submarines can fire Trident ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, while the 55 smaller and faster attack submarines such as the Jefferson City can seek out and attack enemy vessels.
The attack subs also carry Tomahawk cruise missiles, which are expected to be among the weapons that would be fired in the opening salvo if the U.S. goes to war against Iraq.
The Jefferson City is about 360 feet long -- about the length of a football field -- and has a hull diameter of 33 feet. Most of it is composed of ballast tanks and tubes from which the Tomahawks and torpedoes are fired. This leaves little room for the reactor, engine and control room, let alone living quarters. The crew of 140 shares space equivalent to a three-bedroom house, sleeping on coffin-size "racks" stacked three high. They move about the sub by traversing passageways so narrow that the men must frequently turn sideways.
The sub's dining room -- officially known as the mess deck -- resembles a mobile home and has five narrow tables where 34 crew members sit shoulder to shoulder. They have 15 minutes to chow down before the next group takes its turn.
The food is served buffet style, so the crewmen can eat as much as they want in the short time. There are no specific weight limits, but sailors must be able to fit on the sub's snug bunks. The fitness center consists of one exercise bicycle in the corner of the engine room.
British submarine crews have the added luxury of a small bar with ale on tap, but alcohol is prohibited on U.S. Navy vessels.
Space is at a premium, so food is stored in virtually every nook and cranny on the Jefferson City: beneath seats, behind pipes, under decks. There is a freezer for the meat.
For a recent deployment the Jefferson City loaded up with 9,800 pounds of flour, 1,200 pounds of chicken, 1,000 pounds of prime rib, 1,000 pounds of ground beef, 800 pounds of potatoes and 100 dozen eggs. In all, the submarine will typically carry about 15,000 pounds of food, or about 110 pounds per sailor per patrol. The food bill for such a mission is about $80,000.
During meals all these ingredients come together in an 8-by-10-foot galley that is barely larger than the kitchen in a small apartment.
Youhan, 22, who had been a cook since he was 15 before enlisting in the Navy last year, prepares most of the food from scratch.
"It's challenging but it's great training," says Youhan, who hopes to eventually run a restaurant. His parents own a pizza shop in Newport Beach.
"You have to do everything yourself, so you learn a lot of skills quickly."
There are four mess specialists, or cooks, on a sub's crew, and typically only one is in the kitchen at any given time. The cook on duty often must prepare the entire meal, mainly because there is very little room for anyone else in the kitchen. A second cook helps serve the meal and a food service assistant, typically the lowest-ranking enlisted man on the boat, does the cleaning up.
The cooks take turns serving four meals a day, including the "mid-rats" serving at midnight. On a typical patrol, the crew may see a meal repeated only once or possibly twice. The sub's menu, which is reviewed by a nutritionist and a committee of peers, is set for five weeks and repeated thereafter. Cooks also prepare special meals for vegetarians or others with unusual dietary needs.
The best meals are served during the initial two to three weeks when fresh milk, eggs and vegetables are still available. When a sub is in port its stores of fresh food are replenished.
Rico says the Jefferson City's cooks try to keep up an eclectic menu -- a fusion of Asian, European and American cuisine that could have easily been lifted from any upscale restaurant.
Breakfast is hearty, with bacon, sausage, eggs, pancakes, French toast and grilled steaks, depending on the day. Grits and oatmeal made from scratch are standard offerings, as are fresh-baked doughnuts and omelets made to order.
A lunch menu on a recent Monday consisted of French onion soup, spinach lasagna and Italian sausage, followed by a dinner that included egg drop soup, teriyaki steak, Cajun blackened fish and pork fried rice.
A salad bar is standard for lunch and dinner as well as ice cream and a variety of cakes baked each day for dessert.
On Tuesday, the main lunch dishes were grilled steaks and broiled lobster, with seasoned wax beans and sauteed mushrooms with onions. For dinner, the crew had Dijon baked pork chops with natural pan gravy, simmered pasta and sesame glazed green beans.
Wednesday was "Southern comfort" day, so for lunch the crew had shrimp gumbo, Southern fried catfish and honey-glazed ham accompanied by sweet potatoes, seasoned black-eyed peas and Southern-style greens. Dinner included beef and chicken tacos and beef and bean burritos with Spanish rice and seasoned corn.
Highlights for the rest of the week included tenderloin, rib-eye, prime rib, roast beef, breaded pork roast, turkey pot pie, lemon baked fish, noodles Jefferson (a dish created by the sub's crew) and hamburgers, pizzas and buffalo wings.
The Jefferson City prides itself on the variety of its beef offerings, whereas cooks on attack submarine Portsmouth are noted for their chicken dishes. The Portsmouth's menu for a recent week included Sichuan chicken, Jamaican chicken, chicken cordon bleu, savory baked chicken, chicken cacciatore, Southern fried chicken and chicken noodle soup.
The advent of nuclear subs in the 1950s led to improved food because galleys doubled in size, allowing for improved capabilities.
But Jack Engelbrecht, a retired submariner who served on the older diesel-electric subs, recalls how food was still "pretty good, better than anywhere else."
Engelbrecht, who joined the Navy when he was 17 and later became a communications electrician on one of the first nuclear subs, says, "I remember that we would have fruit pies, fresh baked breads and fried chicken. They were always very good."
"Food has one of the biggest morale impacts on submarines," says Joseph Weber, a chief petty officer who is in charge of the food service for the 11th Submarine Squadron at Point Loma. When at sea, crew members have little communication with relatives and friends. Off-duty distractions are limited mainly to reading and watching movies.
To improve the food offerings even more, Weber last year began a program with local restaurants in which cooks from subs spend as long as three weeks working with civilian counterparts in the San Diego area. Submarines at home ports elsewhere such as Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and Norfolk, Va., have similar programs.
So far about two dozen sub cooks have gone through the program at some of the best restaurants in San Diego.
"They're right up there," in terms of cooking skills, said Bernard Guillas, executive chef at the Marine Room in La Jolla, where about a dozen submarine cooks have spent time making everything from French pastries to salmon with beurre blanc.
Guillas also learned a few tricks about cooking in tight spaces, inspiring him to begin writing a book about submarine food.
"All the people who came to work with me, they love what they do. They have double interest: They want to do something better for their comrades on board, and they want to understand what is happening in the industry so they'll be better prepared when they leave the Navy."
Rico, the Jefferson City's senior mess specialist, says submarine crews are spoiled by the good food: "They sometimes take it for granted because they get it day in and day out."
No wonder then that submarine crews have another distinction that sets them apart from anyone else in the military: It's apparently the only fighting force in which virtually every sailor gains weight -- about 10 pounds on average -- during a deployment.