MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
I was surprised to see him in camouflaged utilities with his blouse removed. I thought he would have worn a chef’s coat, but he just tied an apron around his waist to protect his uniform from any food splatters. He appeared to be comfortable in the kitchen; almost like he had done this before. He said he cooks all the time at home, just never in a restaurant.
“Order in, 14 specials.”
He’s going to cook 14 orders at once. This should be interesting.
Today’s chef is famous in his own right, not nationally famous or even Combat Center famous. He’s Headquarters Battalion, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center famous.
Lt. Col. Phillip Zeman, the battalion commander for HQ Bn., is not a professionally trained chef. This got me wondering if he was even actually cooking or simply assisting the club’s chef.
I went up to the Officer’s Club early, well earlier than usual. I wanted to get there before they opened for lunch. Mostly, I wanted to get there while Zeman was prepping the dish he was cooking. Maybe get a few photos and a chance to talk to him for a minute and maybe just get some of the behind the scenes stuff.
I was surprised to see the lobby already filled with people waiting to be seated. The dining room wasn’t opened for at least another 20 minutes. Many of these would-be diners weren’t regulars with the lunch crowd. They simply wanted to be the first to taste what Zeman had to bring to the table.
Zeman was busy with the final preparations when I got to the kitchen. He whisked seasoned olive oil that would be used on the grilled tuna, arranged his work station, and ensured everything he needed was organized and in easy reach.
He lightly coated the tuna with seasoned olive oil and carefully placed the tuna steaks on the grill. With all the noise from around the kitchen, I could still hear the sizzle of the grill.
Standing watch over them, Zeman remained calm. He carefully checked each steak for grill marks, turning each one about 60 degrees in order to make criss-cross marks. Only a couple of minutes passed and he was flipping the steaks to grill the other side. And then carefully making the same grill marks as the first side.
The tuna steaks were off the grill and being sliced before I knew. It really didn’t seem long enough to cook them. Tuna steaks are supposed to be cooked rare to medium rare, these appeared to be cooked perfectly.
Zeman had stuffed each one with a mixture of feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh basil – three of my favorite flavors.
The stuffed tuna was gently placed on a scoop of garlic mashed potatoes.
Mashed potatoes with tuna. I was intrigued.
I would have thought tuna would be paired with rice. Add a couple of spears of brocolini drizzled with a little hollandaise sauce over the top and the dish is ready to be served. Before Zeman could finish plating the first order of 14, another order for six comes. And then another.
After watching Zeman’s enthusiastic construction, I was eager to taste the dish. Would it taste as good as it looked and smelled?
I was not disappointed. I’m a huge fan of ahi tuna. Add in the mix of feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh basil and it was absolutely scrumptious.