Honored Navy chef traces roots back to Detroit

TODD SPANGLER Detroit Free Press Published:

DETROIT (AP) -- Being a 6-foot-2 cook on a submarine brings certain challenges: There are the bulkheads and cramped quarters, of course -- to move around, you're always tilting your head.

Then there's the havoc all that diving and ascending can do to a cake in the oven.

"Really lopsided," is how CSC (that's for Culinary Specialist Chief) Derrick Davenport describes some of his malformed creations. "You either cut the larger side off and move it or put a lot of icing on the other side to even it out."

Davenport, who grew up on Detroit's east side the son of a city police officer -- himself no slouch in the kitchen -- and a mom who works for the Henry Ford Health System, has a bit more space in which to operate these days.

He's the personal chef (and an enlisted aide to) Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As such, he spends a lot of time cooking not only for the chairman but invited brass and visiting dignitaries.

A recent menu saw a petite bacon-shallot quiche; mixed greens with a sherry vinaigrette; and stuffed chicken breast with wild mushrooms, Yukon gold potato puree, asparagus and glazed carrots with a port wine reduction. It was finished with a strawberry shortcake and pistachio brittle.

"Low-key, nothing really fancy," Davenport said.

Davenport, 36, a graduate of Schoolcraft College's renowned culinary program, has been piling up the honors lately.

In March 2011, when he was still executive chef for the chairman's dining room in the Pentagon, he managed a team that won Installation of the Year against 27 other military bases.

This year, he won the Armed Forces Enlisted Aide Competition -- a new category in the military's culinary arts face-offs -- in which he had to answer questions, put together his boss' uniform (all those medals need to be in the proper places, spaced with a ruler) and cook a three-course meal for four in 90 minutes.

He also will be the first Navy chef to compete on the Army's Culinary Arts Team -- representing the entire U.S. military -- at the Culinary Olympics in Germany this October.

"Honestly, I really like taking foods I grew up with and kind of upscaling them," he said.

That means refining comfort foods and re-creating desserts. His variation on an upside-down cake features peaches instead of pineapple and is served with buttermilk ice cream and a gelee of peach schnapps.

No one back in Detroit seems very surprised by his success.

"His work was second to none," said Joseph Mucaria Sr., who teaches culinary arts at the Oakland Tech Center and used to work with Davenport both at the Golightly Career and Technical Center, where Davenport taught for a time, and at the Harbor Beach Resort, where Mucaria was general manager and Davenport took charge of the bake shop.

"He was always looking for that next step," Mucaria said.

Joining the Navy, as Davenport did in 2000, isn't the usual next step for a chef -- not by a long shot.

But at Schoolcraft, Davenport -- who graduated from Bethesda Christian High School in Warren -- drank in the stories of some of his master chef teachers who served, and he began to think, after working in Greektown, at the Ritz-Carlton Dearborn and at Golightly, that he wanted to join.

"I don't know if it was my naval experience that inspired him but he always used to ask me questions about the Navy," said Chef Jeff Gabriel, a culinary Olympian himself, certified master chef and Vietnam vet.

It's easy to understand why the stories would stick: Gabriel talks of traveling the Far East, eating sushi at a time when it was practically unknown in the U.S. and tumbling out of bars in Taiwan to find vibrant street food.

He'd tell tales of cutting sides of beef with a band saw and baking bread and doughnuts from scratch.

"It's just something I always wanted to do," he said.

His service has come with its challenges, though. Five years as a cook on the submarine USS Annapolis taught him a whole new way of handling a kitchen.

When it came time to decorate a cake and there were no pastry bags, he used the tied-up lining of a cereal box.

He did a 14-month stint in Afghanistan, helping to train Afghan soldiers, many of whom didn't want to be cooks, how to run a food service.

But he witnessed tragedy, too: the death of one of his cooks and someone he had chitchatted with just before an attack at the base a couple hundred feet from the kitchen.

"I had to work through that," he said.

___

Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com