Few restaurateurs ever get a tour of military flight kitchens in airport hangars halfway around the world.
But Sylvania resident Michael Gibbons, owner and president of the Ann Arbor-based Mainstreet Ventures, spent four weeks this winter touring the kitchens at six U.S. Air Force bases on three continents. He represented the National Restaurant Association in the 2007 Air Force annual John L. Hennessy Award competition. His journey began Jan. 29 when he left the company s 16 restaurants including four in Toledo (Real Seafood, Zia s, Carson s Steakhouse, and Ciao!) in the hands of colleagues to dedicate his time to analyzing Air Force food. After training at Randolph AFB in San Antonio, he met his team of three other members, including active and retired military personnel. They would live and travel together for the next four weeks as they proceeded with an on-site evaluation of each installation s food service operation.
The John L. Hennessy trophies are presented to the Air Force installations with the best food service program in the U.S. Air Force.
The Hennessy Program is exhilarating and grueling at the same time, says LaVerne Warlick, vice president of administration for the National Restaurant Association, of the highly coveted award. The Air Force nominates bases [which] they deem to be the best. Those nominated bases are visited by a touring team comprised of military and civilian population.
The association sponsors two civilians for the program each year. One participates with the team that visits single-dining hall bases; the other visits multi-unit bases.
Mr. Gibbons, who has been on the board of directors of the National Restaurant Association since 2000, was in the team visiting the multi-unit facilities. The Air Force has a worldwide menu. It doesn t matter where you are in the world, so you see the same food on the menu on any given day, he said. They had enough diversity. I only saw meatloaf once, and pork chops with mushroom gravy once. Salad bars are big. There s plenty of nutrition information available.
The food is American fare to make people feel at home, he added. It is comfort food to put a homemade spin on it.
The team reviewed training programs, safety logs, budgets, forecasts, and contracts plus the kitchens, food, menus, and personnel.
When the results were determined, they were put in a sealed envelope and mailed to the Pentagon. The award will be presented at the National Restaurant Association s annual show in Chicago on May 19.
The Hennessy award showcases outstanding culinary skills, professionalism, and a positive image for the Air Force, says George Miller, chief of Air Force Food Service and a retired chief master sergeant who was on the team with Mr. Gibbons.
In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed John L. Hennessy to help improve the quality of military food. Later the Hoover Commission established by President Dwight Eisenhower suggested that the military services initiate a competition among food service operations to reward the best.
Starting in Biloxi
For Mr. Gibbons, the Hennessy travelers began at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Miss.
The process included watching the military or civilian people cook. Then the judges tasted the food. Most kitchens had four meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a midnight meal.
At Keesler, there were three facilities: The Azalea and Magnolia, each serving 900 lunches a day and from 300 to 600 dinners, he estimated. The third facility is smaller but still serves 1,000 meals a day. There is a central prep kitchen and a pastry kitchen that works for all three dining rooms.
Mr. Gibbons developed his own evaluation system: I walked the extent of the building looking for cleanliness: Was the trash cleaned out? Was the loading dock clear? Then I walked in the front looking to see if the dining room was neat and clean. Then I looked at the service lines, the kitchen and the coolers, the storerooms, he said.
At Mildenhall, about 45 miles from London, England, where the U.S. Air Force is stationed on the Royal Air Force installation, the midnight meal of the flight kitchen had a big carry-out order for 50. Flight teams were coming back from a night operation, Mr. Gibbons recalls. The four of us jumped in and helped assemble the carry-out meals so there would be no delays.
At Hill AFB in northern Utah, the flight kitchen was 70 miles away at a missile testing site.
Back at main base, on Feb. 8 started at 6:45 a.m. with breakfast followed by the trip to Fast Eddie s Flight Kitchen located adjacent to the maintenance hangers. At 10:30 p.m. they returned to Fast Eddie s to observe the prep and service of the midnight meal.
From there, the team departed for Incheon International Airport outside of Seoul, South Korea, and the Osan AFB.
On Feb. 13, work began with evaluating breakfast at the Gingko Tree dining facility at 6 a.m., which serves more than 2,000 meals per day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year.
Later, we observed lunch prep, lunch production and cleanup, and then left for Pacific House, which is over 50 years old, according to an e-mail record of his trip. It s easy to forget that this is a war zone except for seeing all the weapons in the dining halls and the armed Humvees around the base.
After two days of evaluating food, the team headed for the DMZ. They went to the Peace Memorial; a new train station that has been built in hopes of reunification, and to Camp Bonifas, named for a captain who was killed in the DMZ in 1976. It was a sobering day, he said.
The return to the United States lasted 39 hours, which he describes as the longest day of my life. The Hennessy travelers destination was Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Wash.
The final destination was Mountain Home AFB north of Boise.
In South Korea, Mr. Gibbons helped Airman 1st Class Luther Jourdan prepare cobbler. He was having trouble. The dough wasn t quite right. He and I were looking at it. He had put a little cinnamon in the crust. It turned bitter. We started over, says the restaurateur.
In fact, on the scoring sheets for the Hennessy Award, there was a section about adhering to the recipe. When we sat down to do the final assessment, one of the biggest problems was not following recipes, he said about the team s discussions. Recipes were sometimes unclear. George Miller and I had a lot of talks about this.
Now home, My goal is to get the National Restaurant Association to fund a culinary school trained-chef for the Tech School to provide training and for periodic travel to see that training is implemented, said Mr. Gibbons.
Looking back on the experience, two food memories stand out for him.
Each facility has a POW/MIA table in the dining room with symbolic settings of a white cloth (purity of intention), one red rose (the life of each of the missing), yellow ribbon (everlasting hope for a joyous reunion), candle (commitment to ensure their return), and a chair leaning on the table (representing no specific soldier but all those not with their comrades).
In South Korea, the team helped serve the birthday meal. Anyone who has a birthday that month can attend with one guest. They have their choice of steak, lobster tail, or shrimp. They get table service for this, and the servers are their officers, including the Wing Commanders, he wrote in an e-mail.
At Mountain Home AFB, military leaders asked him what he would take home from the trip, and without any hesitation my first thought was that I am more proud than ever to be an American, he wrote in his e-mail journal.
He was inspired by the service that the military provides beyond security in offering training to young men and women. They also have an opportunity to gain experience that translates into real jobs when they get out and ... they understand what it means to be part of a team.
Contact Kathie Smith at email@example.com or 419-724-6155.