Culinary Specialist-3 Berkeley Scott crouched down like a golfer reading a green, his eyes just inches away from the sizzling burger.
Scott, a cook aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Hickory, carefully examined the burger for where to put the toothpick. He plunged it into the brioche bun, through the criss-crossed strips of bacon, the egg (without puncturing it), the onions, the bleu cheese fondue and the burger to hold it all together.
Precision was important. This burger was going to represent a crew of nearly 50 men in the Buoy Tender Roundup competition, where crews from all around Alaska came together to show off their talents.
“The thing I was mainly focusing on was not making it too messy,” Scott said. “I don’t want too much of the fondue, too much onion or for the eggs to be undercooked. It has to be just right.”
Scott, along with CS-1 Matthew Koran and CS-3 Salvatore Lauria, then wrapped the burgers and the plates in tin foil and walked out of their galley, across the deck and onto the deck near Coast Guard Station Juneau. They then walked up to the Buoy Deck, the bar and restaurant reserved for Coast Guard members.
Five people sat around a table there, waiting with scoresheets in front of them. Senior Chief Jeremy Demello, Petty Officer First Class Jon-Paul Rios and Captain Steve White were there representing the Coast Guard. Jared Cure, the owner of the Narrows Bar in Juneau and Jacob Pickard, a sous-chef at SALT Alaska, were also there as special guests.
Cooking competitions are a vital part of the annual Buoy Tender Roundup competitions. The first day includes events such as a survival swim, a tug-of-war and other on-deck. The burger competition takes place the next day, and the biscuits and gravy competition takes place the day after that.
Culinary Specialist Rating Force Master Chief Justin Reed said that last year’s overall competition actually came down to the cooking events. Last year’s contest was a seafood cooking competition, but Reed decided to switch to burgers this year.
“With a fish dish, it’s hard,” Reed said. “You just eat fish all week, kind of, and everybody loves burgers. That’s like a signature favorite in the Coast Guard. Sliders is a signature favorite. It’s a morale thing for guys. When you say you have burgers, ‘Thank god.’”
Reed, who is based in U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., said the Coast Guard has had a tough time recruiting and retaining cooks as of late. It’s a shame, he said, because the cooks on board these vessels have full reign over their galley and the menus they make. Most of the cooking is done from scratch, Reed said, and allows for chefs to be very inventive.
While the chefs aboard the vessels have to cook in large quantities, they proved during the competition that they can also prepare special, gourmet items. CS-1 Steve Carson of the CGC Sycamore prepared a bison burger with candied bacon with a roasted garlic blue cheese sauce on a homemade bun.
CS-1 Travis Hickman from the CGC Kukui expected there to be another seafood competition this year, so he bought salmon from Sitka Sound Seafood recently. He decided to just stick with the salmon and prepared a salmon burger with seasoned breadcrumbs and aioli sauce.
The victorious entry, though, came from CS-1 Christopher McKinley from the CGC Anthony Petit. McKinley used three meats in his, combining a bison burger with some beef and topping it with crispy pork belly, tomato jam and cheese on a brioche bun.
“I’d been tossing it around for a couple days and last night I just started jotting down some things that I like on a burger,” McKinley said. “This morning, I just started playing around with them and this is kind of what I ended up on.”
The judges decided to grade the burgers on presentation, originality and taste, and were extremely talkative as they shared their thoughts. Each crew made multiple burgers, and the burgers were cut into fourths and handed out to the judges.
“No two were the same,” Pickard said afterward. “I was very impressed.”
Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise” played as they spoke afterward and reflected on the burgers they had just sampled. Demello leaned back in his chair and thought back to the Hickory’s burger (which finished third), which was the first one the judges tried. It didn’t have the flair of some of the other ones, Demello said, but the execution was excellent.
“The other ones overpowered it, yeah, but the first one was, ‘This is what we like to see,’” Demello said. “A classic burger with an egg.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.