By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)
When Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hosts his foreign counterparts at his official residence at Fort Myer, executive chef and household manager Derrick Davenport is responsible for planning the menu at official dinners and functions.
However, in addition to that and a litany of other duties that come with serving the armed forces’ top-ranked military official, Davenport finds time to compete with other chefs from across the country. Earlier this month, the Alexandria resident won the American Culinary Foundation’s top award of Chef of the Year at a gruelling contest in Florida.
Davenport first began the qualification process for the final in January, when he won the Northeast regional competition, which required the use of rabbit in four entrees with no advance preparation time and only one hour to complete the dish.
Then, he traveled to Orlando for the final against three other chefs from other regions and had to prepare four courses, of which two used squab — young pigeon — and two used frog legs. Davenport is the first member of the armed forces to win the Chef of the Year award, for which he received a $5,000 cash prize and a gold medallion.
For the military culinarian, who has spent time as a cook on a submarine, training military chefs in Afghanistan and at the U.S. Navy Culinary School at Fort Lee and then as a chef at the Pentagon, the experience was incredibly educational.
“The whole process, the journey of this, was greater than the destination,” Davenport said. “The destination was just the icing on the cake as far as winning Chef of the Year and being the first member of the armed forces to win. The journey has taught me a lot about myself, areas that I could improve in, cooking and logistic-wise.
“Driving two hours down [to Fort Lee], practicing and then cleaning up and driving back on my off-days and the weekend then working a normal job, it was a juggling act. But in the end it’s personal growth and development that I really cherish.”
At the final itself, Davenport had two apprentices to assist him with food preparation, cleaning and other tasks, but they could only be involved with accompaniments and not with the squab or the frog legs. The competition organizers gave few guidelines, only that the menu must be cohesive, and Davenport put together offerings that in part payed homage to his family’s roots yet stayed classical in presentation.
“When I developed the menu, [the squab and frog legs were] a secret ingredient to the public but not to the chefs — they told the chefs mid to late May,” he said. “I immediately started doing some research, there’s books called ‘The Flavor Bible’ and ‘Culinary Artistry’ that I lean on quite a bit, especially when developing menus. I looked at those and what paired with rabbit and what paired with squab and what paired with frog. I wanted to have a four-course meal that showed a little bit of progression.”
Davenport and his assistants received credit for maintaining a clean kitchen in addition to the final prize. Davenport said one of the biggest challenges came in the form of logistics, transporting equipment, sourcing local fresh ingredients and finding somewhere to practice.
“Luckily, I had a bunch of my colleagues who were actually going to the competition, some of them were driving down, so I was able to load my boxes in their pickup truck,” he said. “I reached out to some folks at the local Cordon Bleu [College of Culinary Arts] in Orlando and they actually had a kitchen was not being used by students that myself and my apprentices were actually able to use for two days prior to the competition to practice together because the three of us hadn’t really had that opportunity.”
Davenport said he wanted his win to show his peers in military cuisine that they can compete and win against civilians, even with the pressure that military culinarians work under every day.
“[To win] was very surreal, and it really made me appreciative and grateful,” he said. “I told people that I wanted to show all the other military culinarians that we are just as marketable as our civilian counterparts, don’t short-change yourself, work hard, keep learning your craft and then honing your skills. I’m thinking, after this journey’s over, what’s going to be my next move? For me, it’s the thought of learning.”
After winning the competition, Davenport returned to his day job at Fort Myer, but he still harbors great ambitions. One thing in the back of his mind is preparing for the ACF’s Certified Master Chef certification, one of the most challenging in the industry. With this success behind him, and with the experience he continues to gain working on base, he is hopeful of passing that exam and continuing what he says has been quite the career.