WASHINGTON — Say "military cook" to most Americans, and they will conjure a picture of Cookie in the Beetle Bailey comic strip.
They certainly wouldn’t conjure a picture of Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Derrick D. Davenport, an executive chef with the Joint Staff and the 2015 American Culinary Federation’s Chef of the Year.
The Chef of the Year is the highest award presented by the federation, and Davenport is the first military chef to earn it since the award was established in 1963. He competed for the award at the ACF’s annual convention in Orlando, Florida, earlier this month.
Unlike Cookie who is forever pictured in a stained T-shirt stirring sauce or slopping chipped beef on a tray, Davenport is a slim and trim culinary specialist who is the executive chef/senior enlisted aid to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey.
Growing Up in the Kitchen
Davenport said he got his start watching his father and grandmothers cook in Detroit.
“My dad is the family cook, and one of my grandmothers is a professional cook, and the other is just a good Southern cook,” Davenport said during an interview. “I always hung around the kitchen with all three of them. Early on, my grandmother said I’d watch episodes of PBS’s Julia Child just as much as Sesame Street. I always gravitated to the kitchen and cooking.”
He went to a culinary school in Livonia, Michigan, and then worked at restaurants and country clubs in and around Detroit for a few years before joining the Navy in 2000.
“I always wanted to serve my country,” he said. “One of the master chefs I worked for was in the Navy back in the Vietnam era, and he’d always regale his class with sea stories and all the great times he had.”
Davenport remembered that when he was looking for his next challenge. His recruiter told him the Navy was the only branch that worked for presidential food service, “and that kind of became my goal.”
Career on Land, at Sea
First, though, he served aboard the fast attack submarine USS Annapolis out of Groton, Connecticut, for five years, and then served as an instructor at Great Lakes Naval Training Center located near Chicago.
“We built a couple of schools and I worked with the Afghan National Army,” he said. “I would walk to the Afghan DFAC to train the Afghan cooks how to cook.”
The instruction was to teach the Afghans the hygienic way to cook, Davenport said.
“We would make sure they handled stuff that they butchered correctly — no cross-contamination. We made sure they cooked to the proper temperature. I learned a lot from their style of cooking, as well,” he said.
Davenport was selected for the chairman’s staff because they needed a chief who could both cook and lead. The test was they gave him a basket of food and said he had 30 minutes to craft a menu and make a three-course meal.
“I did seared tuna with an Asian slaw, chicken breast risotto and a Grand Marnier mousse for dessert,” he said. “I was hired on the spot.”
Davenport worked for former Joint Chiefs Chairman Navy Adm. Mike Mullen for three years and stayed when Dempsey became chairman.
Davenport uses fresh in-season produce and fruit when he cooks. He said the Dempseys give him a lot of latitude.
“They give us full creativity to do what we want within the dietary restrictions of the guests,” he said. “We cook healthy foods and try not to overdo it on the calories.”
Competing Around the Country
For the Chef of the Year competition, Davenport first had to compete regionally. He won that competition in Buffalo, New York, in January. The secret ingredient he had to cook was rabbit.
In Orlando, the secret ingredient was squab and frog. That competition was like Iron Chef in front of an audience of chefs. The rules are four courses in one hour with no advance prep.
“I tried to keep everything summery and light because hey, it’s July in Orlando with 100 percent humidity,” he said.
The first course was tomato consomme with tomato compote and a frog fritter on top of that.
“The second course was a smoked squab breast … and a small salad and some pickled fruits with citrus vinaigrette and a goat cheese soufflé,” he said. “The third course I sort of paid homage to my Dad and grandmothers — those good Southern cooks — so I was thinking shrimp and grits, but I couldn’t use shrimp so I substituted frog legs.”
The fourth course was squab with the dark meat made into a sort of sausage and the breast meat in the center. Davenport had two apprentice chefs helping, but they could not touch the secret ingredient.
And he won.
“The judges said we had the cleanest and most organized kitchen. They loved the way we worked in the kitchen before they even got to the food,” he said. “There was no gear adrift, as we say in the Navy, and the tables and cutting surfaces were always wiped down. It’s from my Navy training to keep it clean because if you’ve got a food-borne illness on a ship, you are killing the mission because everybody is down for the count.”
The senior chief will stay with the chairman until he retires next month.