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Coast Guard chef gets ‘A’ grades for his sea fare

It’s just after daybreak, the sea gulls are squawking as the sun rises over the shipping cranes and Food Service Officer Barry Wildman is reporting for duty.

He puts on a white double-breasted coat and a navy blue cap and then assembles his crew for a working breakfast.

Wildman reviews the day’s menu. It’s ambitious:

Blackened chicken Cajun pasta alfredo with andouille sausage and Gorgonzola cream sauce, tagliatelle pasta with basil and sun-dried tomatoes, Tuscan-style minestrone soup and sautéed fresh broccolini. For dessert: cornmeal cookies, bread pudding and biscotti.

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“Get some fresh parsley and add chives, since that’s what’s growing out there!” Wildman barks to his cooks.

Since Wildman became top chef at the U.S. Coast Guard Base Support Unit San Pedro, the spartan chow house in the middle of the nation’s largest port complex has been transformed into a gastronomic destination.

Workers from the surrounding prisons, firehouses and lifeguard stations elbow their way into the humble galley at lunchtime, the crowd swelling to 150 customers some days.

Spiced with fresh herbs and vegetables Wildman grows just outside the cafeteria, the Coast Guard cuisine — from herb-crusted tilapia with spicy aioli to jerk chicken in a habanero chile marinade — is a world removed from the bland military chow that was served (and avoided) for years. The grub was usually frozen or canned, then plunged into the fryer or slopped in water and boiled.

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That was before Wildman, a 41-year-old culinary school graduate, arrived at this forlorn appendage of industrial land with hopes of using fresh herbs and produce to restore some pride to Coast Guard cookery —and maybe get a fresh start himself.

Wildman surveys his fresh vegetables in the walk-in refrigerator, adjusts the settings on the gas ranges and industrial ovens and runs through assignments.

“I want to get this meal started,” he says.

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Wildman has gravitated toward the kitchen for most of his life. As a teenager, he served up burgers and fries at a McDonald’s in Cleveland. In his 20s, he whipped up grilled cheese sandwiches and barbecue as the go-to cook for his fraternity brothers at Kent State University.

He enlisted in the Coast Guard at age 26, hoping it would bring stability and purpose to the impulsiveness of his college years, epitomized by the time he skipped final exams to run with the bulls in Spain.

Wildman was assigned to cook aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, an ice-cutting ship patrolling the Great Lakes. Where many could have seen a bleak deployment, he found a new passion.

In the ship’s cramped galley, a mentor taught him that the key to delicious food was fresh ingredients. So he began to experiment, incorporating herbs and vegetables he would get delivered on land.

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Before long, Wildman was convinced his calling was to be a chef, not a guardsman.

So he left the military for Hyde Park, N.Y. where he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2001 and became sous chef at a gourmet restaurant. He dreamed of becoming an executive chef running his own eatery.

The fast-paced environment of a commercial kitchen was exhilarating, but the 80-hour workweeks took a toll.

Alone, divorced and still paying student loans, he tried to remember the last time he was truly happy. It was in the tiny galley aboard the Mackinaw.

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On his way to an interview at a Las Vegas restaurant, he told himself “I can’t do this” and turned around.

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It’s 10 a.m. and the galley echoes with the dull knocking of sharp knives on wooden cutting boards. The crew chops broccolini, Italian parsley and oregano and cuts bits of pungent Gorgonzola from a wheel-size round.

Because young recruits arrive with little or no cooking experience, Wildman takes them on field trips to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, La Brea Bakery, a winery and a cheese factory. The galley’s bookshelf boasts dozens of titles on gourmet cookery, including “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” and “Larousse Gastronomique.”

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Traditionally, Coast Guard cooks have mostly stuck to the Armed Forces Recipe Service, a wooden box jammed with thousands of recipes in which the smallest serving feeds 100 and measurements are given in pounds and gallons. Dried herbs. Frozen meat. Canned beans.

Not anymore — at least in San Pedro.

“Here, everything is so fresh, sometimes it feels like I’m in a cooking class,” said Joshua Arman, chopping parsley with his Coast Guard-issue Wusthof kitchen knife.

Wildman roams the galley giving pointers and dipping spoons into saucepans. You can almost imagine him as the proprietor of a trendy cosmopolitan restaurant.

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Until you notice sea lions barking on the docks just a few dozen feet away.

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Over his family’s objections, Wildman reenlisted in the Coast Guard as a cook in 2004. He couldn’t help but think he was backtracking in life; a big-time chef who was right back where he started, in a military galley.

He opened the doors to the galley he was assigned to in Key West and, to his dismay, found years-old dried spices and canned food.

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When he was transferred to San Pedro, he saw untapped potential in the galley, a drab, utilitarian installation next to an immigration holding facility and a razor wire-protected federal prison.

He asked his supervisor for a budget to purchase herbs, fresh vegetables and modern cooking equipment, but the request was denied.

So he brought in pots of basil, oregano and sage from his backyard. He ripped out the overgrown, thorny bushes surrounding the galley and replaced them with fragrant rosemary. He planted sage and parsley in old flower beds and sowed an assortment of vegetables and herbs: Swiss chard, cherry tomatoes, beets, lavender and five kinds of thyme.

The garden soon boasted more than 150 varieties of herbs and vegetables, a supply his 10 cooks began to draw from nearly every day.

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As Wildman began to hear praise from diners, he started experimenting more, tweaking recipes for regulars and taking their requests by text message.

The rush he longed for had returned.

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“I tried your chicken, it’s kickin’,” Wildman tells one of the cooks. “One hour, guys.”

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Timers beep and steam fills the galley as cooks scramble to meet their 11 a.m. deadline, when the doors open.

The workday on Terminal Island has its own rhythms, thinning out when people are at sea or tending to emergencies. When federal payrolls were cut earlier this year, the 150 people Wildman fed each day during the two-hour lunch period dwindled to 100. Lately, though, business has started to pick up as word of the galley’s $4-a-plate feasts has spread to city workers in Long Beach and San Pedro.

With 15 minutes to go, Wildman squirts vegetable oil into a large skillet, sautés the ingredients for the pasta sauce — ground pork, garlic and tomato paste — and tops it with fresh-chopped basil, oregano and a splash of white wine.

He tastes a single square of the tender pasta, chewing it with a nod of approval.

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Savory aromas fill the air and skillets crackle as the cooks use teaspoons to taste their sauces and sprinkle in homegrown seasonings in a flurry of clanging utensils, pots and pans.

“As soon as you hit it with the wine, kill the heat,” Wildman tells a cook manning a frying pan. “All right, guys, let’s open up.”

The dull white mess hall has linoleum floors, cinder-block walls and rectangular tables rigidly arranged. The only color comes from the blue-and-gold uniforms of the Coast Guard regulars who shuffle in.

Then come the civilians: port workers, sailors, lifeguards and prison guards seeking refuge from their own mess halls.

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David Sias, a facilities officer at the prison, eats at the galley five days a week.

“This is a gift and a treat,” he says over a plate of Cajun pasta with chicken. “There has never been a bad meal here, and the prices are wonderful.”

How long that will last is uncertain.

Wildman’s time in San Pedro is nearly up. He is set to be transferred next summer and has requested an assignment at the culinary training center in Petaluma, Calif., teaching new cooks.

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He is also being recruited to be the top chef at the prison across the street.

Some have asked him if the galley’s garden will go brown and the food will turn bland once he’s gone.

“You’re the custodian of something only for so long,” he tells them.

tony.barboza@latimes.com


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