Red, white, and blue Mardi Gras beads aren’t typically paired with a uniform, unless they’re worn at D.C.’s annual Blue Star Families culinary competition. The annual event on Tuesday, March 13 at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce drew high-ranking military officials — including National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — to celebrate those who serve military families.
The Mardi Gras beads entered the mix during a friendly throw-down between branches, with guests giving their beads to their favorite dish cooked by star D.C. chefs and their military chef partners. By the end of the night, some chefs donning the most beads were behind the night’s seafood dishes. Folks lined up for gulf shrimp burgers whipped up by Bayou Bakery chef David Gras and the National Guard’s TSgt Tyler Gaswint and New England-style clam chowder from Ris chef Ris Lacoste and Navy chef CS1 Frida Karani, among other dishes.
Eater quizzed military chefs on their favorite dishes to cook for their troops and their expert opinion on MREs, or ready-to-eat military meals.
Who was your culinary idol when you were growing up?
“My uncle Dan was my culinary idol (he doesn’t know this!). Every time I had the opportunity to eat his food, it was always something fresh and beautiful. He has lived in Philadelphia for most of his adult life and because of him I learned that even if you live in the city you can create beautiful, fresh, real and simple foods that are vibrant in color and hold true to the original form in which they were meant to be eaten.” — Air Force Chef, MSgt Jennifer Medeiros
“My grandfather was such a guide for me in the kitchen. He was a Navy Steward and the ship’s cook — he was my inspiration for joining the military, and becoming a military chef. Growing up going to family functions and seeing my grandfather cook (from sun up to sun down!) the smiles it brought, and the flavors and presentation of his dishes: it made me want to become a cook myself.” — Coast Guard Chef, CSCS Derek Johnson
Who are the D.C. chefs you most admire and the local restaurants you make a point of visiting when in town?
“My fellow DC military chefs are the ones I most admire! True talents in this city that not many have the delight to experience. Outside of the city, my favorite restaurant is a mom-and-pop restaurant in Hanover, Maryland, near where I live, called Timbuktu; it’s low-key and they have the best crab cakes. From a popular chef standpoint — I admire chef Robert Irvine, as he does a lot with the military community. And I have heard so much about the Salt Line with Kyle Bailey, so if I get a chance to get to a baseball game that is where I will be heading.” — Army Chef, SSG Michelle Brown
“Chef David Guas of Bayou Bakery is a great chef that I admire. I had the opportunity of working with him at last year’s Blue Star Families Celebration. He welcomed me into his restaurant and let me try out and test run a dish we were going to serve. We talked shop about my experience in the military and he shared some of his stories on his journey of cooking. I even recently contacted him for some pointers for making a roux for a gumbo I was doing for an event, and he took the time to send over some tips. I could just tell the passion he had in cooking, and it shows in the food he puts out. With that being said, Guas’ own Bayou Bakery is a place I like to frequent the most!” — Coast Guard Chef, CSCS Derek Johnson
What’s the best restaurant meal you’ve had anywhere in the world? Most disappointing?
“The best meal I have had was at a Michelin star restaurant in Plymouth, England, called Treby Arms. The worst was at … Applebee’s.” — Navy Chef, CS1 Frida Karani
“During my first deployment, we stopped in Phuket, Thailand. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, as it was many years ago, but the food I do. I had a spicy, sour soup with prawns, served with steamed rice. There was such a depth of flavors and really gave me a sense of the culture.” — Coast Guard Chef, CSCS Derek Johnson
What’s the most elaborate meal or dish you’ve had to prepare for a military function?
“I was able to do a six-course meal for the Australian VCHOD; I made him a seafood bisque, pork belly with quince sauce, trout on sautéed sea beans, Jerusalem artichokes purée, cucumber and mint sorbet, beef filet with mushroom gratin, harvest panna cotta, spiced cake, and compressed apples and cranberry coulis.” — Navy Chef, CS1 Frida Karani
“Last November, I had the opportunity to represent the National Guard in the USO’s Salute to Military Chefs annual event. Mine and my partner’s dish was jerk spiced beef tenderloin with sweet potato puree, bourbon demi glace and haricot vert bundle. That was probably the most upscale dish I have ever made.” — Air National Guard Chef, TSgt Tyler Gaswint
What’s the most requested dish/meal you get from troops or leaders?
“I love to bake…for the people that have tried it they really enjoy my lemon loaf.” — Army Chef, SSG Michell Brown
“The most requested dish from me is shrimp and grits.” — Air Force Chef, MSgt Jennifer Medeiros
“The most requested dish from the crew and my boss is my Pozole Rojo; it’s a pork and hominy stew with a guajillo chile adobo- simply delicious!” — Coast Guard Chef, CSCS Derek Johnson
What’s the best tasting MRE you’ve ever tried? Worst?
“Worst I’ve had may have been a Salisbury steak. The best ones to me have been the vegan MREs, and those have the better snacks, but overall I do not like MREs. The last time I had a full MRE as a meal may have been basic training. I know they have upgraded and made a lot more healthier choices but I will eat the snacks of out of them, like the cheese and crackers or peanut butter and crackers.” — Army Chef, SSG Michelle Brown
“Best: chili Mac. Worst: ham loaf” — Air Force Chef, MSgt Jennifer Medeiros
“My favorite MRE that comes to mind is the cheese tortellini one, or basically any pasta one is a safe bet. The worst one, in my opinion, and I think a lot of people agree, is the veggie omelet.” — Air National Guard Chef, TSgt Tyler Gaswint
“Well the best MRE I tried was the beef stew. The worst MRE was hands down the scrambled eggs with ham, peppers, and cheese. Not even the mini bottle of tabasco could help that one out. Not a fan!”— Coast Guard Chef, CSCS Derek Johnson