August 9, 2012

Bon Appétit: Mess Hall 710 ensures station is satisfied

Story and photos by Cpl. Sean Dennison
Desert Warrior Staff
Lance Cpl. Diana Huizar, a Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 administration clerk and a native of Riverside, Calif., makes herself a salad in Mess Hall 710 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Aug. 1. Huizar is among the hundreds of patrons that come to the mess hall daily to fill their stomachs.

“Chillin’, killin’, cookin’, grillin’” – Sgt. Richard Martin, Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 food service specialist

Vats of boiling food release steam into the galley while a Marine yelps in pain because of spilled, scalding alfredo sauce. Cooks dodge each other with practiced grace as they carry ingredients and edibles to their proper places. Aromas of freshly prepared meals mix and fill the chow hall while hungry Marines queue up to fill their stomachs.

As the Marines sit down to eat, out of sight, the food service specialists of MCAS Yuma relentlessly prepare for the next meal, keeping in mind clean utensils and proper cooking temperatures.

Just another day in Mess Hall 710.

The mess hall, or chow hall, to its patrons, is one of those entities on the air station so familiar to Marines and Sailors it’s easy to forget the food line separates hungry Marines ready to idle over a hot plate of food from the restless cooks in the galley ensuring those platefuls are palatable.

“The thing about being a cook is everything is time management,” said Petty Officer Second Class Bryan Schoeppner, a Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron culinary specialist and a native of Canton, Ohio. “If you don’t do your job right, you’re going to have a ton of starving Marines.”

Sanitation, temperature and timing are always on the cooks’ minds when working.

Lance Cpl. Daniel Giles, a Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron food service specialist and a native of Springfield, Va., carves meat for Mess Hall 710’s lunch rotation at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Aug. 1

Out of the approximately 70 mess halls, Mess Hall 710 has the honor of being the oldest mess hall in the Marine Corps. Built in 1960 and opening in 1961, 710 has gone through over 50 years of food service changes and has adapted to new Marine Corps standards.

It’s also received numerous accolades for its cooks’ proficiency.

“This mess hall has been known to have outstanding command support,” said Lt. Col. Jay Rogers, Director of the Marine Corps Food Service and Subsistence Program, Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, D.C. “Otherwise you wouldn’t see those trophies outside (the entrance).”

710’s most respected award is the W.P.T Hill Award, which recognizes the best messes in the Corps. The award, established in 1985, is named after Maj. Gen. William P.T. Hill, who served as Quartermaster for the Marine Corps from 1944-55.

710 won the award three years in a row, from 2003-2005. The mess hall completed its preliminary inspection for the 2012 award Aug.  1.

“We (the Corps) are not known for the culinary side of our affairs,” said retired Maj. Patrick Grosso, regional food service manager, Camp Pendleton, Calif., who led the inspection team. “Through this competition, we seek to improve the quality of food . . . for troops coming to the front of the line.”

Grosso, who served as a Chief Warrant Officer 2 and a CWO3 in Yuma from 2002-2004, explained the changes in food service from when he was coming up through the ranks.

In the 1980s, it used to be one meat, one starch and one vegetable, the chow hall trinity, he said. Now mess halls have creative food displays, meat carving windows, fusion options and sandwich bars.

“Even when we first put square packs of butter out, we thought it was provocative,” Grosso added.

With Yuma being the busiest air station in the Corps, constantly hosting units who come here to train, the cooks have the Herculean task of feeding not only permanent personnel but visiting service members as well, some of whom are foreigners.

“The challenging part of the job is customer service,” said Cpl. Brenna Troxel, a MWSS 371 food service specialist and a native of Las Vegas. “We have to make sure food is within standards but also it’s what everybody wants.”

The biannual Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course, when the station’s population nearly doubles, is when the mess hall truly shines.

“It’s hectic, but not impossible,” said Troxel. “We get other cooks from other stations.”

Even with the extra manpower, it’s not uncommon for a cook to work well after most Marines have changed into civilian attire.

“Over here you have to be adaptable,” said Sgt. Jaime Baxter, a MWSS-371 food service specialist and a native of Calexico, Calif. “We get more troops to support us, so we’re training them and cooking at the same time.”

“There’s so much going on,” added Schoeppner. “You’ve got to keep calm, keep cool and be able to make decisions at any given time.”

Despite the effort needed to feed thousands of Marines daily, the cooks find validation and reward in the simplest ways.

“I love seeing the look on peoples’ faces when I make their eggs,” said Pfc. Caralyn Podsim, a MWSS-371 food service specialist and a native of Yorktown, Texas. “I like seeing them happy.”

“For me, it’s when people say thank you,” said Lance Cpl. Destiny Caban, a MWSS-371 food service specialist and a native of New London, Conn. “When they come through the line, some people just take a tray and say nothing. When they say thank you, that’s when I’m most satisfied with my work.”

The cooks are constantly critiqued, by themselves, fellow cooks and mostly by the entire air station.

“They’re inspected every day by Marines coming through to get their chow,” said Rogers. “They’ve got to be on their game every day.”

The cooks know this and embrace it.

“We’re the best in the Marine Corps,” said Alfred Schutt, Mess hall 710’s manager. “We’ve always been a cut above the rest.”

“The food’s perfect,” said Staff Sgt. Brandon Coleman, the Marine Attack Squadron 513 administration chief and a native of Little Rock, Ark. “They’re very respectful. They make sure everything’s good when I eat here.”

It’s the mission of the mess hall to feed to the troops.

It’s the goal of its cooks to inspire words like Coleman’s.

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