Chatham Coastie Wins Top Culinary Award; Second Such Honor For Coast Guard Station Chatham

by Alan Pollock

CHATHAM – The food at Station Chatham is, arguably, the best in the Coast Guard. About a year ago, the station’s culinary specialist won top honors in the entire service, a feat that seemed unlikely to repeat itself. That is, until the Coastie who came in to replace him, Petty Officer Amanda Martello, won the same national honor this year.

With minutes ticking down to a busy lunch featuring a menu of Mediterranean grilled skirt steak, crispy fingerling potatoes over whipped lemon-thyme ricotta, a green cucumber tomato feta salad, with a dessert of olive oil honey cake with fresh peaches, Martello is completely unfazed in the galley. She has cooked in Coast Guard kitchens of all sizes, including cramped shipboard ones where the working surfaces are all moving with the waves.

A native of the Houston area, Martello first started cooking in a high school culinary program. “I kind of found that passion, the creativity of it, was my way to express and get out of the mundane at home,” she said. Cooking at home was nothing special, she admits. “There was a lot of Shake ‘n’ Bake,” Martello said with a laugh.

Controlling nutrition for active young Coasties helps keep them healthy, but it’s also a critical morale booster for young people who might be finding themselves far from home for the first time.

“If you have a good meal, it changes everything, and can completely turn your day around,” she said. Working on a cutter miles offshore, when word came down that the ship would be on extended tour and crew members would be away from home longer than expected, “we would break out the steaks and would have steak night to kind of try to improve the mood,” she said. Food is generally a good cure for homesickness, she added.

“So if I get a craving for — there’s a doughnut place in Texas, Shipley’s — like, I can just make some Shipley’s,” she said.

At a shore station like Chatham, crew members have the option to eat on base or to do their own shopping and food preparation at home. But the limited food stipend the Coast Guard provides means that it’s economical for them to eat meals at the station. At a time when the Coast Guard is closing down galleys, Station Chatham’s operation is likely to remain — chiefly because of the high cost of living on the Cape, said Senior Chief Ross Comstock, the station’s commander. Of the 166 shore stations in Chatham’s category, only 90 still have dining facilities.

Martello met her husband in the Coast Guard; the two now live in Sandwich with three children, 7-year-old Ava and 3-year-old twins Owen and Milo. The remedy for a long day slaving over a hot galley stove? Coming home and playing with the kids.

At nearly 35, Martello is older than many of her crewmates, and the Coast Guard is her career. For around 23 years, her father was a radioman in the Coast Guard, serving on an icebreaker out of Seattle and at other posts in Corpus Christi and Louisiana. Martello and her sister both joined the Coast Guard, and while her sister has since left the service, she was also an accomplished cook. Martello has been a Coastie for 13 years, and is shooting for at least 20. She’s expecting a duty rotation to another post in a couple of years, and hopes Station Chatham will bring on another culinary specialist who she can help train. Maybe the station can keep its record going with a third straight Culinary Specialist of the Year title, she said with a chuckle.

The smell of steaks sizzling in a cast iron pan began to draw curious crewmates who peeked in the galley before lunch.

“I add pepper, salt, paprika, oregano, and a little lemon juice,” she said. It’s cooked in avocado oil rather than butter, to avoid a bitter taste. “In most of my food, I keep it pretty simple. It looks more exciting than what it is. It’s in the preparation,” Martello said with a smile.