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Focus on Service

Passion to Serve

Chef Uses Cooking Skills to Serve Country

Culinary Specialist 1st Class Frida Karani likes to say that a peaceful kitchen makes her nervous - and it shows.

Watching her cook seems impossible and vaguely dangerous. There's a constant sizzle in the air of three separate skillets at work, punctured by a clatter of dishes as she dances around shelves. She shuffles between a collection of glinting knives - each designed for its own precise task - artfully slicing, chopping and dicing a rainbow of produce. It is chaos, but through it all, there is a confidence about her. She laughs, she jokes, she is at home, focused on fighting the hunger of hundreds of waiting Sailors.
"I have found that a Sailor's morale is actually steered with the food you put in front of them," she said. "A lot of time, you have Sailors coming off of watch - they are tired, they are sleepy - but, when they see a nice plate of food, they get excited, and that is why I do what I do."

Karani currently serves as the enlisted aide to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She has won numerous accolades during her time in the Navy and cooked in competitions on an international level, but her love for the culinary began in her family's humble kitchen, nearly eight thousand miles away in Mombasa, Kenya.

"The passion for cooking comes from my grandmother," said Karani. "When I was little, my grandmother used to tell me to hang around with her in the kitchen. As I grew up and realized how food is important to people, that passion grew even more."

Family meals were an important part of Karani's daily life in Mombasa. Both of her parents worked long hours, so her grandmother's home-cooked dinners became a time to bond.

"People come together during meal times," said Karani. "So for me growing up, everyone was in school; everyone was working. My parents would go to work very early in the morning, leaving my grandmother at home taking care of the little things during the day. At the end of the day, however, we all sat down and enjoyed a meal. So that was a time we could catch up with what's going on in each other's lives. Now that I'm grown up, it still plays the same role."

Karani is very passionate about the food from her home country, and still vividly recalls the meals her grandmother made.
"There is a dish called pilau; it's a mix of rice and cumin and you can add potatoes if you like," she explained. "It comes with a side tomato salad called kachumbari. There's also nyama choma, which is goat meat that is roasted, and there's chapatti - that's a flatbread that comes from the coastal side where I was born. There's a lot of different dishes that we make that are amazing. I think everything from home is good.

"Every time I make the traditional dishes, it makes me feel like I'm home. It brings that memory of my family gathered around, sitting, eating and having a good time. It brings a lot of childhood memories," continued Karani, who also loves the challenge of working with lamb.
In addition to food, Karani's other love is for travel, and she's managed to combine the two. She attended school for culinary arts in Kenya for two years before being offered a job as Saucier at the Hyatt Regency in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. After two more years, she accepted a culinary internship with JW Marriott Grand Lakes hotel in Orlando, Florida, and traveled to the United States. The internship soon evolved into a full-time position. At the same time, she began attending culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu.

This was important to her development as a chef; she was able to take her lessons from school and apply them directly and immediately at work. Karani continued her pursuit of self-improvement, however, and when a recruiter paid a visit to the school during her final year, a new opportunity appeared.

"A recruiter came to talk to us about joining the military," she said. "He sold it very well. He said that, at my age, if I worked hard, I could advance quickly, and I could go to school, which is very important. He said I would be able to travel and do what I really want, which was to give back to the community. Traveling, food and serving people are my biggest passions. So when I got the opportunity, it was easy for me to join."

Karani also has family who served in Kenya's military and these memories helped guide her to the Navy.

"I had an uncle who was in the navy in Kenya - he always came around in his dress whites, and I thought 'Ooh that uniform looks cool!'" said Karani. "I was really little then, and when he would visit, I can remember thinking about how grown up he looked."

Besides, she soon found that crafting a meal at Le Cordon Bleu and feeding a crew from a ship's galley weren't so different.

"At my first command aboard the USS Forrest Sherman (DDG 98), we had a crew of almost 300 people, so it was big productions," said Karani. "I thought to myself 'Oh, OK, so what I did in small quantities, I just have to do bigger!' I always tell people, once you've learned how to do something, you can apply it to different situations. With cooking, it's the same thing. If you know how to sear a steak for one person, think about being on a ship - you're searing the same steak, just for three hundred more people. The difference is very small."

Karani has now served in the Navy for eight years. She has been named enlisted aide of the year, armed forces chef of the year and Joint Staff Sailor of the year. She won both the 41st Annual Culinary Training Competition and the British Royal Navy's Exercise Joint Caterer 2017 Competition Senior Grande Prix. She also claimed victory on the Food Network's hit TV show Chopped, but she claimed it for the Navy.

"For me the role of competition, really, is to showcase what the Navy has in terms of our culinary specialists," said Karani. "These opportunities to compete, I use them as a platform to showcase all military chefs. The idea of 'military chefs aren't that good' is an old idea; it's all talk - right now our chefs are pretty good."
Her Chopped victory had another advantage as well: $10,000 in prize money that she hopes to use to bring her family over for a visit from Mombasa.

"If there was anything my parents could do when I was growing up, they did it," said Karani. "We've had our troubles as a family, you know, but I would not be sitting here if my family didn't put me through school, if they didn't teach me what I know now as a human being, if they did not provide shelter, clothing and security as a child. They taught me right from wrong, so bringing them here is for me to be able to share what I have built and the friendships I have had so my parents can see that they've raised a good daughter."

As her career progresses, Karani plans to help spread her knowledge and passion to those around her. She intends to stay with the Navy for a long time, and hopes to one day make master chief, all while passing on the secrets of her trade.

"Training is important for me because it makes me, one, put what I know into practice; and two, pass on the knowledge I have," said Karani. "We can't build a strong nation without passing down the knowledge to the junior people because they are going to be the leaders tomorrow. Training is a great way to reach out and give back. I have been afforded these opportunities by the Navy: Why not give it back? That's the only way to be thankful and know that you are growing as a person."