In The Galley: Behind The Scenes, Cruise Ship Dining

Executive Chef Mark Oldroyd rules the kitchen aboard the Cunard Queen Victoria. Photo © Terry Miller

By Guest Columnist Bob Ecker 

Behind the scenes in a modern cruise ship kitchen, one could forget being deep inside a mammoth, floating hotel. Emblematic 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.

Plus there’s the ever-present team of white clad chefs and cooks scurrying here and there. Yet, the limited amount of fresh produce available and the various braces, hooks and enclosures meant to keep hot pots and pans from sliding off stoves and burners pose unique challenges. 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?  I asked a few experts.

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.”

Cunard Line employs identical twin brothers from North Yorkshire as Executive Chefs aboard two of its premier vessels: Nicholas Oldroyd, Executive Chef, Queen Elizabeth and Mark Oldroyd Executive Chef, 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, 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.”

There are a lot of salads to prepare onboard a modern cruise vessel, each and every day. © Terry Miller

One main difference, indeed an advantage that vessel kitchens have over their terra firma counterparts is the ability to stop over at amazing destinations 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 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, Executive Chef on the Queen Elizabeth.

“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 Steve Kirsch of Holland America.

For instance, with a guest capacity of 2,106 and 929 total crew aboard, the provision list for the Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam is impressive. According to Kirsch, for a typical 10-day voyage the ship carries: 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.

Then there are the drinks. The Nieuw Amsterdam stocks some 3,500 cans of soda, 1,152 pounds of coffee, 600 bottles of champagne, over 700 bottles of vodka and more than 4,500 cans and bottles of beer.

Still, each ship varies the selection, particularly concerning alcoholic beverages based upon customers aboard.  They know that in general, Americans prefer more hard liquor, British more beer, Germans Riesling, and Japanese customers prefer 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 are committed to presenting the finest and freshest cuisine on land or sea.  Celebrity Chefs such as Jacques Pepin, Nobu Matsushita and Todd English have teamed with a new crop of Executive Chefs who strive to present delectable, international choices for eager, discerning diners.

Despite numerous challenges, non-stop work, and constantly changing environments, present-day cruise dining has never been better, and today’s chefs are up for the task.

“The younger generations have become more adventurous, their palates demand more interesting foods with flavor, spice and fusion,” said Mark Oldroyd. “Overall we (along with his brother and fellow chef Nicholas) both love to cook and create new contemporary and classical dishes using tastes of our travels.  There is always a dish waiting to be discovered and presented to the world.”

Bob Ecker is a Napa, California based freelance travel writer