Monday, January 8, 2018

The 'Commander-in-Chefs'

Lou and Bill Cummings Couple Tackles Food Service with Gusto

Bill Cummings and Helen “Lou” Held-Cummings of Utica have been Coast Guard Auxiliarists for more than 15 years. Each has distinguished records of service and leadership in the Auxiliary.

Bill and Lou Cummings
Bill and Helen "Lou" Cummings
Bill was previously District 9ER captain, Division II commander, Division ll vice commander, Flotilla 26 commander, Flotilla 26 vice commander and is currently Division II vice commander and boat crew coxswain.

Lou is currently Assistant District Staff Officer for Food Service (ADSO-FS), a position she has held for over a year, Assistant District Staff Officer for Records (ADSO-SR), and a boat crew member.  She also held the positions of Division II commander, Division II vice commander, and Flotilla 26 commander and vice commander.

Bill and Lou’s clear dedication to the Auxiliary extends to their participation in the Food Service (FS) program. Auxiliarists who enter the FS program receive formal training and guidance that permits them to prepare and serve food in Coast Guard galleys on land and at sea.

We recently caught up with Bill and Lou to ask them about their experiences in the FS program, the challenges they’ve faced, and what they find to be most rewarding. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: Tell us about your experience in the FS program thus far. When did you start?

Bill: We’ve been part of the food service program since before there was actually a formal food service program. Years ago we volunteered to travel up to Station Oswego to cook for the 'gold side' (active duty side) there. I’d say it’s been at least 12 years that we’ve been part of the program.

Lou: It’s been great—they’re really supportive at Station Oswego. Food service has a big impact on morale for active duty Coast Guard personnel. If they’re just back from a Search and Rescue (SAR) mission, for example, it’s not uncommon for them to want a meal, which is very understandable. And you know, they really appreciate it.

Helen "Lou" Held-Cummings
Lou Cummings shows off one of her delicious creations.

Bill: It’s probably one of the most fulfilling things we’ve done. Here’s a funny story. Our son, Dan, is in the Army but stationed at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. He has a neighbor who is in the Coast Guard. He mentioned to his neighbor that his mom volunteers to cook at Station Oswego. Well, it turns out that this neighbor had previously been stationed at Oswego, and recognized Lou and me based upon my son’s description of us. It was one of those “small world” moments.

Lou: Bill and I recently went to Puerto Rico, and while we were there we paid a visit to the Coast Guard Station. We were chatting with some of the crew there, and it turns out that a number of them had just come from Oswego, too.

Q: What sort of training do you have to complete to enter the FS program?

Lou: There is a classroom training portion and a practical portion. You have to demonstrate proficiency in a number of tasks, such as being able to read a recipe and translate that recipe into a finished product. You might have to show the ability to prepare a cold salad, eggs, or meats in different ways. The active duty Coast Guard has culinary specialists (CSs) and you work directly with them in the galley. If the CSs know that you’re coming to get qualified in advance, then they will plan a menu to help you get your qualifications—there might be a grilled item, a baked item, a broiled item, and so on. You also have to take a written test.

Sanitation and cleanliness are extremely important in all of this. You have to pass a medical physical and receive a Hepatitis A vaccination, then provide documentation certifying these things, before you even set foot in a galley. Food safety is critical for the Coast Guard.

Do not let your lack of culinary knowledge keep you from volunteering for the program.  You will be trained in all aspects of the galley.

It’s not that hard to get certified, but you’ve really got to stick with it.

Q: Did either of you have prior experience working in commercial kitchen environments, such as restaurants or bars, prior to entering the FS program?

Bill: Yes. Years ago I was a manager-in-training at Friendly’s, a fast food chain. Later I was a district food service supervisor for Sav-On, a group of convenience stores operated by the Oneida Indian Nation. We would sell some proprietary food operations as well as franchise operations. I was a buyer for the food service orders, oversaw the food prep, store sanitation and store menus, as well as profit and loss statements.

Bill Cummings
Bill Cummings carries a tray of cinnamon rolls.

Lou: I used to live overseas in Germany and was very involved in family activities with the Army. My boss was a former Army cook, so when we did events, they were big. When I came back to the States, I did a lot of battalion functions. But as far as being professionally trained as a chef, no, I’m not. We also have a big family, so holidays at our home involve a lot of cooking.

Q: What’s the most challenging thing that you’ve had to prepare?

Bill: Lou and I are not big seafood eaters, so preparing fish can be hard. Sometimes they’ll go the market and get a fresh swordfish, so that kind of thing can be tricky.

Lou: But the great thing is that every time you go into the galley, the CS will provide you with a recipe and he or she will go through the whole process with you. Sometimes CSs will ask if you want to fix something in particular, as well. They’re always up for new ideas.

New galleys can be challenging. I usually work out of Oswego, but this past summer I had the opportunity to work at Station Erie. You expect all galley equipment to work the same way. I prepared some cinnamon rolls that came out crispy on the outside but raw and gooey on the inside. Apparently they had a propane-based oven that had been recently converted over to natural gas, causing a fluctuation in oven temperatures. I was checking the oven every five minutes after that.

Bill: What Lou just brought up is interesting. There are so many opportunities that can come up in the FS program. You can even go on a Coast Guard cutter for weeks at a time if you’re qualified and can cook. There is a big need.

Q: What would you say to a new Auxiliarist who is thinking about taking the plunge into the CS program?

Lou: As long as you have a willingness to learn, and a passion, I’d say go for it. Some members in the past had this idea that it was a cheesecake job, but you have to wash dishes and mop floors, just like in restaurant kitchens. There is a huge satisfaction in preparing meals that bring a smile to faces of the crew!

Bill: When we work at [Oswego’s] Harbor Fest, it’s a twelve to fourteen hour day. But the crew recognizes us and thanks us.

Just to show you how much they appreciate it, back when I worked for the federal government, I got deployed to Iraq. When I came back after my deployment to Oswego, I was told, jokingly, that I could never go to a place like that again—that’s how much they care about us.

I also remember one time that there was a young Coast Guardsman at Oswego—it was his first duty assignment—and his mom was concerned that he wasn’t going to get a proper Thanksgiving meal. Well, we got Lou on the phone and talking to her about what they were preparing for Thanksgiving, and that really helped to put the Coast Guardsman’s mother at ease.

Lou: What people may not realize is that at small Coast Guard stations, it’s like a little family. You get to be a part of that family in the FS program. You get to see the active duty side in their home space.

And they look out for us. If we’re looking tired in the kitchen, they will pop in and help us out. Once, after we had put in a 14-hour day, they went out on a SAR mission. At that point we had gone to bed because we needed to get up early to cook again the next morning. The gold side is authorized a midnight meal if they go out on a SAR after a certain hour. They know they can wake us up and we’ll gladly come and prepare something for them. They came back late after their SAR mission, but they didn’t wake us up, because they realized we were tired and needed to rest.

Q: Any concluding thoughts or comments about the FS program that you would like to share?

Bill: It’s a rewarding field and a great opportunity for Auxiliarists.

Lou: Just remember that you don’t have to be an expert. We’ll train you.