Cooking on the bounding main

Ships may feed thousands, and "you cannot pop down to the local market" for supplies.

Posted: March 11, 2012

Behind the scenes in a modern cruise-ship kitchen, one could forget being deep inside a mammoth floating hotel. Culinary items could be from any contemporary restaurant: simmering pots, spotless cooking stations, vegetables on chopping blocks, hot breads in racks, and fancy desserts lined up like colorful little soldiers.

All chefs have to make do with what they have, but how do the experienced cruise chefs cope? How do they keep customers - often in the thousands per voyage - happy and well fed?

The limited amount of fresh produce available poses a challenge, and the various braces, hooks, and enclosures meant to keep hot pots and pans from sliding off stoves and burners on the rolling seas set these kitchens apart.

Bjoern Wassmuth, Seabourn's manager of culinary operations, said, "On a cruise ship you need to be very flexible in terms of provisions and menu planning - not everything is always available."

England's Cunard Line employs identical twin brothers from North Yorkshire as executive chefs aboard two of its premier vessels, Nicholas Oldroyd on the Queen Elizabeth and Mark Oldroyd on the Queen Victoria. "Ultimate precision is needed when organizing the fresh produce and menu planning, said Nicholas Oldroyd. "You cannot pop down to the local market or ring a supplier; it's all up to you and the support team shore-side." His brother Mark Oldroyd said, "The ship's culinary operation is open 24 hours and there is always something happening - cocktail parties, champagne, afternoon teas - and we are responsible 24 hours a day to answer or assist concerning the culinary operations on board."

Steve Kirsch, director of culinary operations for the Holland America Line, said, "If you are out of a certain ingredient, you need to substitute. In general, produce and dairy are bought on a weekly basis, and dry goods and frozen foods are bought every two weeks. We only supply our ships with sustainable seafood and we do some local purchasing of fruits and vegetables."

One main difference, indeed an advantage that kitchens on luxury vessels have over their counterparts ashore, is that they put in at ports around the world. "We're able to visit local markets and purchase fresh produce and seafood whenever possible, and then prepare delicious dishes for our guests that same evening," said Seabourn's Wassmuth. "There is a local fish market at the port of Kusdasi [Turkey], nobody can miss it, and fish is so fresh and beautifully prepared," said Franck Garanger, fleet corporate chef for Oceania Cruises. He added, "The local markets in France [Nice], Italy [Amalfi], Greece [Corfu], Spain [Valencia], and many others in Japan and Thailand are huge sources of inspiration."

Asian markets get the experts excited. "Hong Kong is sensational and the amount of smells and aroma which hit every sense of your body is outrageous," said Mark Oldroyd. "Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, features excellent produce markets, with some of the freshest seafood," said Wassmuth of Seabourn.

As for the quantities of food needed on board, the numbers can be staggering. "There are the restaurants for guests and then of course the crew needs to eat. So in total, our chefs prepare approximately 8,500 meals per day," said Kirsch of Holland America. With a guest capacity of 2,106 and 929 crew members aboard, the provision list for the Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam on a typical 10-day voyage includes 4,620 pounds of beef, 22,176 eggs, almost 4,000 pounds of rice, 4,775 pounds of flour, 209 gallons of mayonnaise, and 168 tubs of ice cream, Kirsch said. Then there are the drinks. The Nieuw Amsterdam stocks 3,500 cans of soda, 1,152 pounds of coffee, 600 bottles of champagne, more than 700 of vodka, and more than 4,500 cans and bottles of beer.

Each ship varies the selection, particularly of alcoholic beverages, based upon customers aboard: Americans prefer more hard liquor, British more beer, Germans riesling, and Japanese customers like more sake than others.

Times have definitely changed. Cruise dining is no longer simply about midnight buffets and all-you-can-eat grazing; cruise companies say they are committed to presenting the finest and freshest cuisine. Celebrity chefs such as Jacques Pepin, Nobu Matsushita, and Todd English have teamed with a new crop of executive chefs who strive to satisfy discerning diners.

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