Cooking in tight quarters: A submarine

Petty Officer First Class Michael Christopher Engman, from the Northeast, is the cook on the ballistic missile submarine USS Pennsylvania.
Petty Officer First Class Michael Christopher Engman, from the Northeast, is the cook on the ballistic missile submarine USS Pennsylvania. (ANDRE T. RICHARD / U.S. Navy)
Posted: July 18, 2014

If preparing dishes in a cramped kitchen sounds daunting, imagine cooking in a small space hundreds of feet below the sea's surface for 170 of your closest friends.

For Philadelphia native Petty Officer First Class Christopher Engman, the lead culinary specialist aboard the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Pennsylvania, whipping up macro recipes in a micro kitchen is the norm.

Engman, 26, joined the Navy in August 2005 as a junior enlisted sailor after graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in Northeast Philadelphia. Before he started cooking, he served as a galley watch captain. But his gastronomic career path was not entirely planned.

"I actually had no background in cooking before the Navy," Engman said. "I just wanted to do something in submarines."

When he enlisted, he learned that he was colorblind, which left him two options. He could oversee inventories of ship parts and supplies as a storekeeper, or he could train for eight weeks at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and head to the mess deck.

For Engman, the hardest part of of his job isn't the quantity of the food - it's keeping his menu inspired. Meals are central to life on the ship and to keeping up the crew's morale. Since the seamen exercise or drill most of the time, he said, the mess hall is where they "unwind from the chaos."

He tries to vary his menu, but it's classic comfort foods like mac'n'cheese and sloppy Joes that are the biggest crowd-pleasers. Handmade pizzas are also a hit - that means 100-plus pies.

Engman's favorite dish is also an American standard, Philadelphia style: "I love to make my Philly cheesesteak," he said. "That lets me bring a little bit of home."

Mostly, the fare doesn't differ much from what you'd find in a diner, even if meal times and the amounts are less orthodox: The crew dines from 7 to 8 a.m., 3 to 4 p.m., and 11 p.m. to midnight. Mid-watch breaks ensure that sailors don't have to go eight hours without food.

Breakfast is eggs and potatoes with bacon or sausage, or hot cereal. At lunchtime, there's a choice of two entrees, vegetables and a starch. For dinner, Engman serves a heartier spread. On Sundays, for example, it's rib-eye steak (50 pounds' worth) and lobster tails (60 pounds' worth) on the menu, the most formal offering in his repertoire.

He also dishes out special dinners for holidays. The sailors celebrated St. Patrick's Day with corned beef and cabbage and Irish potatoes. Steak and cheese quesadillas, fish tacos, Spanish rice, and virgin margaritas made up a Cinco de Mayo feast. He'll sometimes bake pies or other desserts if it's someone's birthday.

The submarine carries about 110 days' worth of food, and the 60,000 pounds of ingredients are brought aboard by hand. When supplies run low, the seamen fire off a message listing the items they need. Then the inspection team replenishes the stock when it boards for assessments.

To make the monster-sized meals, Engman has an arsenal of professional appliances at his disposal. Using two full-size ovens, a 40-quart mixer, a 3-by-5-foot grill top, three 6-gallon steam kettles, and two submarine-size deep fryers, he is able to cook enough to feed the 170-person crew.

For maximum efficiency, he'll get the soup going before prepping the entrees. Or he'll cut meat and chill it before he's ready to put it on the grill.

Though the menu - which rotates on a 28-day cycle - is written before the ship leaves base, Engman said he can alter the recipes to accommodate for dietary restrictions. There's one vegan onboard and "people from very different cultures," he said. "You debate whether to add pork."

Whenever Engman is home on leave, he eats with and visits friends and tests recipes in his home kitchen, since it's "better to experiment with one pound of food than fifty."

With 11 years left in the Navy, he said he's considered working as a chef when he retires and plans to go to school to earn a business degree. He'd like to open a diner-style restaurant, but with less of a focus on breakfast.

"But I'm not going to try to compete with Pat's or Geno's," he said. "I'll leave them and their competition there."


zmiller@phillynews.com

215-854-2301 @Zoe_M_Miller

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