Chef Thomas Long (second from l.) with some of the foodservice crew on the USS West Virginia during his Adopt-A-Ship stay on board the sub. (inset) Long checks out the view from the West Virginia's periscope.
The theme song of the 1960s sitcom Gilligan's Island recounts the "three hour tour" the show's castaways went on before being shipwrecked together. Executive Chef Thomas Long of Holy Spirit Hospital in Camp Hill, PA, near Harrisburg, can relate.
Long had volunteered for the Navy's Adopt-A-Ship program, in which chefs from various commercial and noncommercial segments work with culinary specialists on Navy ships to improve the onboard meals. Long was assigned to the ballistic missile submarine West Virginia. He was supposed to be aboard for a four-day cruise off the Eastern Seaboard, but a high alert extended the trip to nine days, during which time he was allowed no contact with the outside world (the Navy informed his family and employer).
Quite an experience for the veteran chef, who has worked in various venues, from hotels and restaurants to the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, PA, and, currently, at Holy Spirit, where he oversees patient dining for the 325-bed facility, as well as two retail operations and onsite catering.
Between retail and patient dining, the foodservice department, managed by Sodexho, serves some 2,200 meals a day.
When FM spoke with Long in mid-June, he was getting the facility ready for a transition to a room service patient dining platform, while also participating in a cafeteria renovation.
How did you find out about Adopt-A-Ship?
"A couple of my friends had gone out onto a carrier that was in port and they said, 'Wow, what a great experience!' So I signed up."
Given everything that's going on there, how did you find time for the submarine gig?
"After I had originally signed up for the program, we had a difficult time coordinating a time when I could be free. Anyway, around February I got an e-mail asking if I might be available in May to go on a submarine. The previous opportunities were on surface ships, so I thought, 'Okay, this could be different...
I assume you've never been on a sub?
"Who has, unless you've been in the Navy? Anyway, I checked and found that I would be able to do it. I figured, 'Hey, I could do this for four days...'
Famous last words...
"I should have known something ominous was up when we were delayed a day going out of port, which meant I would be returning a day later as well. Anyway, once we got on board, the sailors couldn't have made me feel more welcome. I had a great time. We were 24 hours from the end of the trip when the ship got the word about the alert. At that time we had no idea how long it would last, and, frankly, I didn't want to inquire too closely because I wasn't sure I wanted to know. What I did do was determine I would make the most of it. I had brought extra training modules along, so I figured, 'Hey, this is what I'm here for, so let's put them to good use.'"
What exactly was your role?
"They mostly needed techniques. You had a wide range of skill levels. The strongest cooks were pretty accomplished, while under them you had people with less skill who were learning. When I did training modules, I did anything from basic to advanced because the new cooks had to learn knife skills, how to use a steel, how to read a recipe—really basic stuff—while the advanced cooks wanted to learn more on presentation, ideas on how to use up leftovers and better sauce and braising techniques.
What most surprised you?
"It was a real flashback to old-style scratch cooking. The menus were certainly up-to-date in terms of what was offered, but what was kind of refreshing was the use of the traditional culinary arts, like scratch baking. Food preparation is 99% from scratch. For example, they bake their own fresh bread and rolls because it's easier for the boat to store flour than brown-and-serve rolls.
One day for breakfast they had 'Egg McMuffin' sandwiches—and we made the English muffins! I had never made English muffins before, so I actually stayed up late with the midnight baker that night to make 'em, because I wanted to learn. I thought, 'Who gets to learn to do these? Nobody!'"
Do you have an enduring memory, other than being stuck out there longer than planned?
"At the beginning, they had asked me to make them something special, so I made this stromboli soup, a very 'male' meat lover's soup with pepperoni and sausage and ham, tomatoes and homemade croutons. The guys called it 'pizza in a bowl' and it was a huge hit. They insisted I make it again before I left, and give them the recipe. They said they would put it on the regular menu as "Chef Long's Stromboli Soup."—
Favorite Dish: Chicken Pot Pie
Latest Culinary Interest: Spanish cooking, especially tapas
Chef Hero: Emeril, "because he's also a fantastic businessman"
Hobbies and Interests: Ice carving, cooking contests
Favorite Cookbook: The Professional Chef, from the Culinary Institute of America