Family style -- for 4,000; Cafeteria: A large, well-choreographed and sometimes harried staff ensures that students at the Naval Academy eat their three square meals as a group.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At the kitchens of the Naval Academy, where milk arrives daily in a tanker truck and marinara sauce is cooked in six vats the size of hot tubs, the feat of dishing out food for 4,000 students who eat together family style is less a matter of art than good planning and angst.

More than 200 cooks, cutters, table-setters and dishwashers swarm over the kitchen every day on carefully regimented schedules to chop, bake and clean.

The first crew checks in just after midnight to pour doughnut batter into giant mixers resembling the standard KitchenAid ones -- except that they are taller than the people who operate them, and the wire whisks come up to the chefs' waists. The last employees leave 22 hours later -- just after 10 p.m. -- when the 4,000th plate has been scrubbed clean for the third time.

In 150 years of Naval Academy history, all students, or midshipmen, have always eaten together in a dining hall the size of two football fields. The academy and its Army and Air Force counterparts, and one small school in North Carolina, are the only remaining colleges in the country that serve meals family style, a system that sends a platter containing every item on the day's menu -- hot -- to hundreds of tables at exactly the same time.

As 7: 10 a.m., 12: 20 p.m. and 5 p.m. approach each day, waves of stress appear to ripple through the kitchen. On a recent day an hour before mealtime, food manager Richard P. LaRochelle ran to and from his office trying to contain the latest crises: 140 midshipmen suddenly showed up claiming they had requested an early meal that hadn't been recorded, an important meeting of officers across campus had run out of coffee and danishes, and an 18-wheeler at the service entrance needed to be unloaded.

"Some days it gets real scary," said LaRochelle, who runs the daily operation, pressing his hand to his temple. "With all the different events we have to cater and 4,000 people to feed if all the food is not ready at 12: 20, you're dead. There's no backup. Most colleges have buffet lines, and if one item is not finished, you do without. You can't do that family style."

The kitchen, an expansive network of rooms filled with gleaming stainless steel surfaces, resembles any other industrial kitchen -- except in scale. A giant oven with table-size trays that revolve like Ferris wheels can cook 200 20-pound turkeys at a time, while two deep-fat fryers cook one ton of french fries an hour, moving them along on 30-foot-long conveyor belts.

On an average day, the kitchen goes through 1,100 gallons of milk, enough meat to fill two dump trucks, 2 tons of potatoes, 1,200 loaves of bread and 720 pies.

Not their parents' dinners

Those in the kitchen have seen many popular dishes come and go like fads over the years. In the 1980s, kitchen staff members said, all the students wanted was beef. Now chicken is in demand.

"We tried serving them stuffed pork last week," LaRochelle said, "and it was a complete loss. And fish? Forget about it. We served them a nice swordfish once, then we tried salmon in a dill sauce, and they wouldn't touch it. And the only thing resembling a casserole that they'll eat is lasagna."

Most in the kitchen believe that students' eating habits are a reflection of the times rather than a commentary on their cooking skills. Like many of their peers across the country, students arrive at school fully briefed on fat content, calories and ingredients, and most are used to eating microwaveable packaged dishes made by two working parents, rather than the big, sit-down meat dinners of Beaver Cleaver's family.

The longest-reigning favorite dish of late, says Lt. Cmdr. A. C. Raines, who oversees the kitchen for the academy, is chicken tenders: batter-dipped, deep-fried strips of chicken.

"I actually got a letter from a cook on a submarine saying, 'My [commanding officer] is a Naval Academy graduate and he wants me to learn how to make chicken tenderloins. Can you send me the recipe?' " Raines said.

The second runner-up, staff say, is hamburgers -- nicknamed "Z" burgers" because students claim that the burgers put them to sleep in afternoon classes.

Students have become adept at making their preferences heard. Several years ago, they realized they could e-mail the head of the kitchen through the school network. Raines says he receives 40 to 60 e-mail messages a day commenting on the food. And that's just when students like what was served.

Creative labeling

Raines says he would like to serve only their favorites but is constrained by the budget, which allocates $5.35 a day per student but requires that they be fed a balanced, 3,600-calorie-a-day diet.

The kitchen labels all table condiments, including the milk and juice containers, with the Naval Academy logo. Staff members say this reduces the number of complaints from students that the dining hall is serving generic items -- which it is. LaRochelle says as long as the ketchup and honey aren't the cheapest available, students usually can't tell the difference. Students, though, disagree.

"We have a joke that there's USDA quality, dog-food quality and then there's military quality," said Midshipman Jeff Stewart. "They used to try to serve us turkey pineapple ham steak, and it was disgusting. But they're much better about getting rid of things like that. What's difficult is after four years, you just get tired of some of the meals and it's hard to get them down."

"Plebe summer," says midshipman Phil Hamon, referring to the summer before freshman year, "you are so hungry that you don't care what the food tastes like. You just stuff yourself.

"It takes a good couple of months before you really look at what they are serving you," he said. "Overall, though, I guess I'd say people are pretty satisfied."

Despite their efforts, the kitchen staff has learned to live without resounding endorsements.

"From our end, we'll spend hours cooking each of these meals," Raines said, "and it's always a little disheartening when it takes them all of five minutes to eat them. We call it the 'midair refueling.' They just come in and inhale."

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