Cool Jobs: A Day in the Life of a Pentagon Executive Chef

By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity

Some people are born to cook. Others learn it as a craft over time. For Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Frida Karani, who was the Armed Forces Chef of the Year in 2016, it’s been a little bit of both.

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Frida Karani mixes ingredients during the Army/Navy Culinary Competition at the 2018 Pennsylvania Farm Show. Navy photo by Debbie Dortch

Karani, 37, is an executive chef to Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul J. Selva. She’s competed internationally and throughout the U.S. in culinary competitions, including on the popular Food Network show “Chopped,” which she won!

“I was praying the entire time. I said, ‘Frida, you better not get chopped first,’” she remembered.

But her cooking skills come from humble beginnings – at age 10, in her home country of Kenya.

“My cooking passion started with my grandmother,” she said. “When I was little, back in Kenya, I used to always go out and play with the rest of the kids, but my grandma would tell me, ‘You need to learn how to cook. That way you can cook not just for yourself, but whenever you have a family.’’’

Some military culinary specialists are placed in mess management positions when they enlist, eventually working their way up to chef, while others have already come into the armed forces with culinary training. Karani was one of the latter, but she said she would have chosen differently had she known she could get all of her training for free through the military while traveling the world.

“[The military] is giving you so much, and you’re giving back by serving the country. You can’t beat that,” she said.

More on Karani’s background: From the Mess Hall to 5-Star Dining

The learning process never ends when it comes to food preparation. Navy culinary specialists are constantly taking classes to improve and getting certifications from the American Culinary Federation.

“It’s not a one-day thing, especially with trends changing. Cooking is something you want to learn every single day and improve your skill,” Karani said.

Her biggest challenge?

“Cooking for family. They’re your biggest critics,” she said. And you’ll know if they don’t like it. “Most of the time when you put a meal in front of someone, you can see the expression on their faces.”

So what’s a day of cooking like in the life of Chef Karani? Her culinary decisions are often inspired by the ingredients available. A lot of times, she’ll go to the grocery store and walk around, checking out ingredients to determine what to make from there. She also tries to be as healthy as possible to keep up with Navy food service’s “Go for Green” initiative. When we shadowed her, she chose items to make a crusted lamb – one of her favorite meats – with pureed butternut squash and vegetables.

Frida Karani shops for healthy vegetables ahead of making a big meal.

“It’s all about people eating with their eyes first,” Karani said. “So when I’m cooking, I’m thinking of what colors I can incorporate so when the person sees the plate, it’s vibrant, it’s well balanced in terms of vegetables, starch and protein, and it’s also tasty and good-looking.”

When it comes to seasoning, the lighter the better, she said.

“Food tastes as it’s supposed to taste – natural – rather than putting too much seasoning and changing it from what it’s supposed to be to tasting processed or something like that,” she said.

Karani cuts apart the crusted lamb she made.

Her advice to aspiring chefs?

“Make sure whatever you cook, whatever you do, a little bit of yourself is applied there. That’s when the pride of being a chef comes in,” she said.

She hopes to inspire new and younger sailors to work up to their full potential.

“I’m grateful for the opportunities that the Navy has offered me, from the schooling to my career in general,” Karani said. “I am humbled and very, very grateful, and I cannot wait to give back.”

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Cool Jobs: A Day in the Life of a Pentagon Executive Chef