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Marina Mendoza, USNS Richard E. Byrd (T-AKE 4) chief baker, prepares rolls for crew meals.

For the ninth time, the Military Sealift Command dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Richard E. Byrd (T-AKE 4) has been recognized for its outstanding food service program with the annual Capt. David M. Cook award for food service excellence.

The award was presented to Byrd’s food service team by Capt. Kendall Bridgewater, commander, Military Sealift Command Pacific, during a recent visit to the ship in San Diego.

Yukon competed with ships throughout the MSC fleet, with the ships divided into two categories based on crew size -- the ships in the small ship category have crews of 75 people or less and the ships in the large ship category have crews of 75 or more people. Byrd is in the large ship category.

Ships nominated for the award go through an extensive review process conducted by Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force offices, located in Norfolk and San Diego. The ships are evaluated on things such as the ship’s financial accountability, sanitation, safety, customer service, menu planning/presentation, and crew surveys.

According to David Puniesto, Byrd’s chief steward, following the MSC menu to the “T”, controlling the budget and working to improve the crew’s moral is the key to his team’s success.

“We follow the MSC menu to a T. It is a good menu and it includes some very good things such as prime rib and crab,” said Puniesto. “A well-fed crew is a happy crew. The MSC menu is already a morale booster, so we work with that. We know we can’t please everyone, but we do our best to provide good, well cooked meals three times a day.”

In addition to working with the MSC menu, Puniesto and his team have implemented a few ideas, unique to Byrd. These include a “Create Your Own Sandwich Line”, where, much like Subway, crew members can have sandwiches made that can be taken on the go, or quickly eaten before heading back to work.

“The sandwich line is a real go-getter for us. It is very popular,” explained Puniesto. “It also cuts down on expenses on the mainline, because we don’t have to prepare as much food, and don’t have many leftovers.”

Puniesto also mentioned that Byrd is the only ship in the MSC fleet that is able to provide charbroiled meats, something he personally cooks every Sunday.

“Every Sunday we have steak, or prime rib, or something that I personally cook,” he said. “New crewmembers come onboard and tell me that this is the first-time they have seen a ship charbroil a steak. No other ship does that!”

Running a mess isn’t all about good food, as Puniesto explained, good money management is also key. For him, this means managing his inventory and implementing portion control, things he proudly discusses and focuses on every day.

“Not properly managing your inventory can break you. You have to manage what you have and you have to manage your money,” he explained. “The same goes for controlling portions. Portion control allows for buying expensive things like steak. We don’t deprive people of what they want, but we control how they get it. We encourage them to take a portion, eat and then if they want more, come back. We don’t fill a plate with a lot of extras, just to see it go to waste when they person realizes they can’t eat all they took to start.”

The COVID-19 environment was challenging to the morale of MSC’s civilian mariner crews. On Byrd that was no different. Puniesto feels the good food his team provided, as well as things like Pizza and Karaoke nights and Steel Beech Picnics and quarterly Mongolian BBQ nights all contributed to keeping the crew going. In addition, the entire team worked tirelessly to keep the ship clean, and sanitized, ensuring everyone stayed healthy.

Puniesto’s pride in his team and what he does is evident. At mealtimes, he can be found on the serving line, alongside his team, dishing-up plates and talking with the ship’s crew, talking with them and addressing their concerns or requests. In addition, he continues to upgrade the ship’s galley with new, more modern equipment including a new hot food line, ovens, grills and new steam cabinets that will be replaced during the ship’s upcoming yard period.

“This ship is our home, and I am so proud to be a part of this crew,” said Puniesto. “I’m proud of my food service team, and what they do to support this crew. The captain is proud of them too.”

The Captain David M. Cook Award honors MSC's former director of logistics, Capt. David M. Cook. While serving as MSC’s logistics director from 1995 until 1998, he was instrumental in enhancing every aspect of food service operations at MSC, from training for food service staff to nutrition education for ship crews.

For more information on careers/employment with Military Sealift Command, visit https://sealiftcommand.com/.

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