It’s dinnertime at the Naval Submarine Base New London in the tiny town of Groton, Connecticut, and a room of 30 high-ranking officials are hungry. Culinary Specialist First Class Allen Williford is scrambling around the small kitchen, about the size of your typical break room, boiling lobsters. He splits them down the middle, removing all the meat. Then, he stuffs the tails with a lobster meat custard. The Lobster Thermidor − one of seven courses he’ll serve that night − is ready for plating.
Williford enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 18 and worked on a submarine ship for five years, cooking a standard set of meals for 140 crew members. Now, as a flag culinary specialist at Commander, Submarine Group Two, he designs menus for the flag admiral and often cooks for about a dozen delegates at a time in the submarine capital of the world. His wife and two sons, who have moved with him from San Antonio, Texas, to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to Groton, Connecticut, are his guinea pigs for new foods. “I feel pretty open to use my own creativity [on the submarine base],” Williford says. “It’s like running my own small restaurant.”
In the navy for: 7 years, 9 months
Grew up in: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Based in: Groton, Connecticut
Did you enlist in the navy with the intent of becoming a culinary specialist? By the time I was 17, before I had to quit to leave for the navy, I worked on the weekends as a line cook and on the weekdays as a waiter. Then, when I was picking what I wanted to do for the military, my cousin told me to do something I really loved and enjoyed. I took his advice and decided to cook, so I went off to four weeks of training at culinary school in San Antonio, Texas.
How long are your trips below sea level? I worked as a culinary specialist on a ship in San Antonio for five years, where I cooked four meals a day for 140 crew members. We spent more than 70 percent of those five years at sea, which is a lot of time away from your family. Now, I’m a personal chef for a flag admiral.
So you just cook for one person? I also host events for delegates and other high-ranking officials.
Do you get a say in the foods you cook? I get to create a lot of my own menus – it’s like running my own small restaurant. I buy my own fresh produce and propose menus, which get approved by the flag staff. When I’m on a ship, however, it’s a standard navy menu that changes every three weeks. That can get a little boring, but we’ll try to change up some of the flavoring.
Most elaborate dish you’ve cooked: For high-ranking officials, I’ll make something light and elegant, like smoked salon with an apple coleslaw. Once, I made a seven-course meal, which included oysters on the half shell, mixed greens salad with arugula and bacon vinaigrette, French onion soup, and Lobster Thermidor.
How is the submarine’s kitchen equipped? It’s all industrial sized equipment, with two ovens and one flat grill top. There’s no stove, since pots would fly all over the place. Instead, we have fixed kettles that you can put anything in and then heat up. The kitchen I work in now, on the submarine base, has more commercial equipment: a stove, oven, and refrigerator.
Size of the kitchen: Pretty small. It’s split into two sides: one for food service attendants to wash dishes and clean up, and the other side for the cook. The entire kitchen can fit about three people comfortably. You don’t need too much space.
Best part of your job: I constantly get to be creative. I had a passion for cooking and exploring how things work, and I was pretty much self-taught. It’s satisfying to produce meals that are of the caliber I produce.
Most challenging part of your job: Working by myself. It’s especially challenging for large events of 30 to 50 people, but other cooks will volunteer to help me serve.
Did you always love to cook? I spent a lot of time in the kitchen when my dad cooked dinner as a kid. As I got older, my mom worked as a nurse, so she was gone a lot. She would always have the fridge stocked for me, but I often cooked for myself. Starting at age 15, I started having friends over to cook for them, and realized I had a knack for it.
A passion for cooking more often leads to a career in the restaurant business than in the navy. I worked as a waiter at a restaurant at age 16, and one of the cooks noticed that I always showed up early to help prepare the food. He let me help out, so I’d work double duty: on the weekends as a line cook and on the weekdays as a waiter. I would see how things were produced in the kitchen, and then later in the evening see the look on people’s faces when they ate it. It was immediate satisfaction.
Favorite foods: I really enjoy seafood and Italian food.
What would people be surprised to learn about you? There’s a little more on my plate than just cooking. Submarines are small communities; there are a lot of jobs to go around, and not a lot of people to fill them. So I also took on the job of submarine diver and rescue swimmer, and I volunteer at the local fire department.
At home, do you opt for take-out as a break from cooking? I’m one of the command’s fitness leaders – the navy has to make sure its crew is physically and mentally fit – so I try to avoid letting my kids, ages 3 and 5, eat fast food. My wife and I share the responsibility of cooking healthy meals at home. [One such nutrition tip to his submarine group: Eat according to the colors of the rainbow.]
Do you test out new recipes on your kids? My family is my guinea pig, and my wife is my best critic.
Salary range: See full pay tables here.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
First and foremost, you need to be passionate about cooking. If that’s the case, the navy will train you and give you all the tools you need to be right where I am today.