My Coast Guard

A culinary career worth serving

By Petty Officer  2nd Class David Weydert

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If the heart of every Coast Guard cutter is the engine room, and the galley is the soul, then the keeper of that soul is the Coast Guard culinary specialist. 

Culinary specialists (CS) are not just some aproned cooks peeling potatoes. They are the executive chefs, sous chefs, prep cooks, kitchen managers, and dieticians serving aboard cutters, at boat stations, or at other various Coast Guard units.  

“When you advance to culinary specialist second class, you learn the management side of operating a kitchen,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Katrina Goguen, the CS Rating Force Master Chief. “We are basically running our own restaurants.” 

The Coast Guard provides all the training a person needs to operate and manage these restaurants. Future chefs attend a 14-week training course in California. They learn not only how to cook, but also the importance of time management, multitasking, customer service, and even best practices to keep a kitchen clean. When it comes to the actual cooking, instructors base their teaching on a civilian cookbook, not on a simplified military format, and they encourage creativity.  

“We have to learn how to shop for food, how to make the menu—all the different components of the meal,” said Goguen. “You learn everything from soups to sides to entrees. It's a really great foundation for someone who has the interest of one day opening their own restaurant.”

Besides learning how to manage and operate a kitchen, there are other perks that come with serving as a CS in the Coast Guard, such as the travel, the experience, the joy from working with a humanitarian service, and the financial incentives.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Samantha Waialae, a culinary specialist, poses for an environmental portrait in the galley of Coast Guard Station Cape Charles in Cape Charles, Virginia, March 21, 2019. Culinary specialist is one of four critical ratings for Coast Guard recruiting efforts. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Matt Sprague.“Being able to travel was my dream,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Samantha Waialae, a CS currently stationed at Coast Guard Station Cape Charles, Virginia. “I was able to go to Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.”

Waialae’s first unit out of basic training was the Seattle-based Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, the service’s sole heavy icebreaker. While aboard she served as a non-rate, a crewmember without a designated job. One of her duties required her to help out in the kitchen as a mess-cook.

“I enjoyed mess cooking while working in the galley,” said Waialae. “When I was in the galley, I was treated as a culinary specialist third class. I was more willing to help them prepare meals.”

Waialae served a little under two years aboard the icebreaker, touring the Pacific Rim, and her positive experience and encouragement from co-workers led her to pursue the CS rating.

“I had to be realistic with myself,” said Waialae. “What would I be happy doing?”

Being deployed aboard a cutter can be exhausting for all those involved. The hours are long, the space is often cramped, and the seas can be rough. A CS working hard to provide the crew with good food is worth his or her weight in gold, and the Coast Guard is willing to pay.Petty Officer 3rd Class Samantha Waialae, a culinary specialist, prepares a vegetables for a stir fry in the galley of Coast Guard Station Cape Charles in Cape Charles, Virginia, March 21, 2019. Culinary specialist is one of four critical ratings for Coast Guard recruiting efforts. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Matt Sprague.

The Coast Guard is currently offering sign-on bonuses for qualified applicants. For those who have a passion for cooking, the Coast Guard can provide up to a $20,000 bonus. For those who have earned culinary certificates, the Coast Guard can provide up to a $30,000 bonus. For those who have already attended college or a trade school and earned a culinary degree, a member can earn up to $40,000.  

“I heard about the Coast Guard’s culinary bonus when recruiters visited my college for a career fair,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class David Coleman, a culinary specialist aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Midgett, a Honolulu-based National Security Cutter. Coleman said he had a passion for cooking, and coupled with a family tradition of military service, with his father and grandfather serving before him, he decided to join the Coast Guard as a culinary specialist.

“I wanted to follow in their footsteps,” said Coleman. “After college, I decided to combine my two passions: cooking and serving my country.” 

Petty Officer 3rd Class David Coleman, a culinary specialist aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Midgett (WMSL 757), prepares a pizza in the ship's galley, April 10, 2021. Culinary specialists serve aboard Coast Guard cutters and at shore units, and receive training in all aspects of food preparation including culinary fundamentals, advanced culinary methods and techniques, and pastry and baking. U.S. Coast Guard photo.Coleman’s degree from the Atlantic Cape Culinary Academy allowed him to qualify for the Coast Guard’s $40,000 enlistment bonus. Coleman used his bonus to pay off his credit card debt and student loans, with the leftover money put into savings for his own future goals.

“My goal is to retire from the Coast Guard after gaining all the knowledge I can about cooking in the military,” said Coleman. “I want to use the skills and traits I developed in the Coast Guard out in the civilian world, where I would like to open up a 100% farm-to-table restaurant.”

From preparing food at the bottom of the Earth, to exploring new recipes while visiting foreign ports, a CS will learn how to manage, prepare, and run their own kitchen. With a potential $40,000 bonus, CS members could be tomorrow’s future entrepreneurs with a nice nest egg set aside for their own restaurant.