This Coast Guard Chef details the difference between military and civilian competitions


By Kenya McCullum

ACF Chef Danielle Hughes, CS1, U.S. Coast Guard, the 2022 ACF Chef of the Year, talks about what makes military culinary competitions different than other culinary competitions.

Screenshot 2023-06-19 at 3.19.54 PMQ: As someone who has participated in several competitions, what do you think is the difference between competing as a military chef versus a civilian chef? 

A: I think it’s our discipline without a doubt—our attention to detail, how tightly we work, how well we work together. The Coast Guard’s team comes together 10 days before a competition from units all across the country, and we haven’t ever worked together. We are always commended on the camaraderie and the harmonization between the way we all work and perform. So I think that is it. It’s a huge testament to how well we do when it comes to competition because competition is just a different beast. A civilian chef and a military chef are both capable of putting out really good food, but I think what really sets us apart is our preparation because that’s just how we’re groomed in the military.

Q: How important is plating when cooking for service members?Danielle Hughes

A: I think aesthetics are everything. And I think in any line of work, if you love what you’re doing, it’s going to show in whatever you produce. We want to give that to our soldiers. These guys are out there doing all this really cool stuff and it means the world to them to come back from a 12-hour boarding and have a fresh, hot meal that’s delicious.

Q: What are some common mistakes that chefs make when plating?

I think overcrowding the plate and not having enough negative space is a common mistake. Competition teaches you to pay attention to that. I have just learned so much since competing, and the reason I continue to do it is because I truly become a better chef every single time I compete. Regardless of the medal, or however you do from start to finish in that competition, you are going to become a better chef by being held to that standard. And it’s amazing. I learn so much from every single judge—that’s the win right there.

Q: What do you enjoy most about being a military chef?

A: This is super cheesey, but it’s so true: I just enjoy being able to create something with my hands that’s going to nourish my shipmates and bring morale. I know how much I love to eat. I know that look when I’m in a restaurant and I see a server coming by and I think, “Oh, is that my food?” I love being able to give that to my shipmates, to my soldiers, to my sailors.

Read the ACF Chef Profile article featuring Chef Hughes originally published in the 2022 Nov/Dec issue of National Culinary Review.