Fine Cooking on the High Seas

Walter Coghlan, Acting Chief Steward on the NOAA research ship Oregon II, serves up some shrimp creole. Credit: Rich Press/NOAA

Walter Coghlan, acting chief steward aboard the NOAA research ship Oregon II, is responsible for feeding a crew of 30 hungry seamen and scientists. These men and women are often at sea for up to a month, researching fish populations and the ocean ecosystem, and during that time Coghlan’s homestyle cooking gives a big boost to morale. But Coghlan wasn’t always responsible for feeding a crew of that size.

He used to cook for five thousand.

That’s how many sailors were on the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, where Coghlan, 47, spent many of his 21 years as a Navy cook. After leaving the military, he got a bachelor’s degree at the Southeast School of Culinary Arts in St. Augustine, Florida.

At that point, many chefs might look for a job where you don’t have to cook one-handed. That’s how it is in a galley kitchen: one hand stirring and the other holding on as the ship rolls through the waves.

“But when you go to sea for so many years,” Coghlan said, “you miss it.” And so he signed up with NOAA. “I just wanted to get back out to sea,” he said.

During a recent research cruise, Coghlan was up at 3 a.m. baking fresh pastries in the galley of Oregon II, the oldest and smallest research ship in the NOAA fleet. Despite its old school feel, the crew and scientists love this ship. The close quarters forge a sense of camaraderie that is often absent on larger, more modern vessels. And then there’s Coghlan's cooking.

“Sometimes, I’d swear my grandmother was in the galley,” said James Rhue as he dug into a steaming bowl of Creole shrimp over rice. Rhue works as a fisherman on Oregon II, manning the winches that haul the net.

“He goes over and above for people,” said Chloe Dean, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries who was working the research cruise. Dean is a vegetarian, and thanks to the variety in Coghlan’s original menus, she’s never left the galley hungry.

Oregon II is a 173-foot, 729-ton workhorse of a research vessel. During a recent cruise, scientists were conducting a groundfish survey in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship would spend about 40 days moving between randomly selected sampling stations all along the Gulf coast, from the Mexican border with Texas to the Florida Keys.

At each station, the boat towed a bottom trawl for exactly 30 minutes at 2.5 knots. Scientists then sorted, measured, and weighed all of the fish and crustaceans that came up. This allows scientists to monitor the health of shrimp populations—in 2011 Gulf trawlers landed more than $400 million worth of shrimp—and of the ecosystem in general. The resulting data is used to set catch limits on shrimp and other species, and is vitally important to the goal of managing fisheries sustainably.

For the groundfish survey, the ship was out for two weeks at a time. As always, the survey was a 24-hour operation, with day and night shifts switching smoothly at noon and midnight. With people away from home and working long stretches, Coghlan’s cooking gave a noticeable boost to peoples’ spirits. Anywhere on the ship, people could be overheard speculating on the upcoming dinner menu, or critically appraising the dishes from the night before.

On a recent afternoon, Coghlan was in the galley kneading and shaping dough. The night’s meal included gazpacho, grilled steaks, herbed vegetables, and fresh baked Italian rolls. For dessert—pineapple upside down cake, a favorite among the crew.

But true to NOAA’s mission, Coghlan serves up a lot of seafood as well. Shrimp creole, seafood stew, and lemon butter shrimp are among the regular offerings.

Born in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and raised in Hattiesburg, Coghlan started studying culinary arts at Southern Mississippi University. But he wanted to see more of the world and dropped out after two years to join the Navy.

“All it took was one year to get out of the engine room and into the galley,” Coghlan said. During his 21 years of military service, Coghlan did a two-year rotation in the White House kitchen. He also attended the Navy’s finishing school for chefs that serve on the personal staffs of navy admirals.

But you don’t have to be an admiral or white house honcho to enjoy Coghlan’s cooking. Just ask any of the crew aboard the Oregon II.

“You come to my line, I’m gonna feed you ‘til your fed,” said Coghlan.” You’re not gonna walk away from my line hungry.”

Recipes from the Oregon II

Lemon shrimp

Lemon Butter Shrimp

Clam chowder

New England Style Clam Chowder

Seafood stew

Seafood Stew

Shrimp creole

Shrimp Creole