BY GABE LICHT
JAPAN, SINGAPORE, SOUTH KOREA Though he doesn’t consider himself a celebrity chef, Jeff Vanderlinde, of Delano, was promoted as one while feeding American troops in Japan, South Korea, and Singapore as a member of the Messlords.
“I just never thought, when I started the whole barbecue thing, it would take me overseas,” said Vanderlinde, who has been a part of the local Shiggin’ and Grinnin’ Championship BBQ team for about 10 years.
Competing on the barbecue circuit introduced Vanderlinde to celebrity chefs such as Grinders restaurants founder Jeffrey “Stretch” Rumaner, whom he traveled to Asia with, and Guy Fieri. Through those connections, he was invited to be a member of the Messlords, who work to support members of the US military in a variety of ways, including cooking for them overseas.
It was fitting that Vanderlinde and Rumaner toured together, as they’ve known each other for about five years, and their teams have come together as Shiggin’ and Grindin’ to cook whole hogs in Memphis, TN.
Both qualified to be members of the Messlords by appearing on television, with Vanderlinde competing on BBQ Pitmasters in 2013, and Rumaner being featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives when Fieri visited Grinders in 2009.
They didn’t have much time to recover from jet lag or settle in to their first stop in Japan.
“It was a whirlwind,” Vanderlinde said. “ . . . We got in at about 9 p.m. at night. They told us it was going to be a brunch, so they needed us to start at 9 a.m. the next morning.”
It was all-hands-on-deck from the beginning.
“We prepared everything alongside their chefs: everything from the brisket, to the pork, to the homemade mac ‘n cheese, to the coleslaw, to the cornbread,” Vanderlinde said. “And, it was real important to us, when we went over there, we used everything they had in their mess halls so it was also a teaching opportunity for their chefs, so they can try to duplicate it for their troops, so it’s not just a one-time deal.”
In South Korea, they worked with the admiral chef’s personal chef for two days.
“Just because he outranked me doesn’t mean I was easy on him,” Vanderlinde said with a smile.
He was humbled to be outranked by everyone he was serving food to, and those who outranked him were appreciative for the “little bit of home” they received on their plates.
“There were posters of us all over, and everybody came up and said, ‘Thank you. We can’t believe you’re doing this.’” Vanderlinde said, adding that he replied, “I’m on a 10-day tour. You guys are serving years.”
Meeting a Navy Seal from Wayzata, whom he jokingly called “cake-eater,” was especially memorable.
“When this particular gentleman went to the bathroom, his buddies said, ‘Hey, your hometown guy is a hero,’” Vanderlinde said. “I said, ‘You guys are all heros.’ He said, ‘No, he did two tours with Chris Kyle’ from ‘American Sniper.’ Those guys don’t talk about that.”
He met a number of memorable people while on the trip.
“I got to meet base commanders,” Vanderlinde said. “I also got to meet a family from Fergus Falls. I met people from all over the world . . . I met commanders from Australia and Great Brittain. The Australian commander said, ‘We’re here protecting the world.’”
Getting to know the troops also was important to Vanderlinde.
“That’s what we were there for: not just cooking, but interacting,” he said. “For them, they claim it was a real treat. For me, it was a real honor.”
It wasn’t always easy.
“We cooked on everything from a small smoker to a gas grill,” Vanderlinde said. “That was a challenge for me, to make sure I put out the best product I could.”
At one point, Vanderlinde took hooks from the shower curtain so he could hang and cook meat 300 pounds in total in two small smokers.
Even then, it didn’t seem like a chore.
“It’s a lot of work, but you don’t know it because you’re having so much fun,” Vanderlinde said.
Not only did the Messlords prepare a lot of food, but they also had chances to partake in a lot of food.
“We got to go visit the markets and eat their local food,” Vanderlinde said. “To me, it was like ‘Bizarre Foods.’ We ate anything from the beak to the butt, from chicken, to mutton, to tripe, which is the innards. I am an experimental eater. I love the bizarre food aspect. Everywhere we went, we were able to go out and try local cuisine.”
Though it was hard for him to pick his favorite food, he said the spicy whole crab was at the top of his list.
“I love anything Asian,” Vanderlinde said. “I like to try different stuff. Even if I may not like it, I like to try it. I was absolutely sent to the right area.”
He is looking forward to where he will be sent for his next Messlords assignment, though he doesn’t know when or where that will be.
“It just depends on everybody’s schedule,” Vanderlinde said. “With my business, it was tough to leave during spring market, but my clients supported me. I let them know where I was going and what I was doing. It was unbelievable support from my staff, clients, and family.”
Regardless of when or where he travels with the Messlords next, the mission to support the troops in a unique way will remain.
“It’s crazy when you think about what these men and women do for our country, the sacrifices they make,” Vanderlinde said. “It’s all about bringing a smile to their face, and giving them a little something from home, one forkful at a time.”
The trip was made possible through Navy Entertainment and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation.