Story by MC2 Kathleen O’Keefe
Photo by MC3 Will Tyndall

Every Sailor in the bake shop gathered around a mixer filled with all the ingredients needed to make bread dough. The difference between this dough and all the others made before it is that Certified Master Baker Chef Leslie Bilderback got her hands on it and showed everyone who would listen the secret that turns regular bread dough into a buttery and flaky confection.

Whether she’ll be giving training about bread dough or the proper way to wield a knife, Bilderback will spend a little more than a week aboard Stennis reviewing fundamentals and teaching new techniques and recipes to Stennis’ culinary specialists.

“This is an incredible training ground for aspiring chefs,” said Bilderback. “Sailors have this great work ethic and discipline that a lot of civilians don’t have. This is a unique opportunity that I am so privileged to be a part of.”

During her stay Bilderback will hold training seminars as well as one-on-one training sessions with members of each galley. Some training sessions are geared toward subjects cooks need to work on, but others are driven by things they are interested in learning. “I watch the chefs and assess what things they are doing well and what things they need to work on,” said Bilderback. “They face a lot of challenges that they don’t necessarily have a lot of control over, but we focus on the things we can make better.”

Culinary Specialist Seaman Lindsey Ocampo said the training is helping her perfect her techniques.

“Most of the things she is teaching us about are things I’ve done before, but now I’m learning how to do it the right way,” said Ocampo.

“I’m very excited to learn more in the next few days.”

Bilderback believes proper training can make the job of cooking for 5,000 Sailors a less daunting task.

“The people who want to be in the galley are very easy to motivate and teach, but the challenge is reaching the people that have to be there,” said Bilderback. “I believe that if you give people more control and more understanding about the work they have to do it’s going to make the job less tedious.”

Bilderback has been working with the United States Navy for about five years, traveling to both ships and bases and passing on her knowledge. Though she spent ten years teaching in culinary schools the influx of students over the years made one on one teaching almost impossible. Now when she isn’t working on one of her books, she really enjoys the time she gets to spend with Sailors teaching cooking in a friendly and hands-on atmosphere.

“You can’t sit in a lecture hall and teach cooking,” said Bilderback. “You need that one-on-one time with students to really help them develop into good cooks. I like teaching Sailors because I get time with them that makes them better at their jobs.”

Bilderback said that she had a feeling that working aboard Stennis would be a good experience.

“Almost every ship’s galley is laid out the same way, but the people are always different,” said Bilderback. “I knew this was going to be a good location to work in because the senior leaders are so organized and the junior Sailors have been so enthusiastic, nice and welcoming.”

The ship plans to mark the end of Bilderback’s visit with an Iron Chef competition where they can use the skills they’ve attained in a competitive, yet friendly, atmosphere.

Until then, Stennis’ Culinary Specialists will spend the next few days soaking up as much culinary knowledge as they can while also enjoying the experience.

“She can teach us about more than just baking,” said Ocampo. “She knows a lot about cooking, preparing salads and many other things. A lot of us are really looking forward to this experience and at the end of the day, it’s just cool to be working with and learning from a master baker.”