Secrets of a Cruise Ship Kitchen
Published: July 2010
By Leslie Brenner
Aboard the <i>Seabourn Goddess I</i>, we investigate
how lettuce stays crisp at sea and other mysteries of shipboard dining
Ship's log, Thursday, 1 June. The parsley has wilted. I'm not sure we're going to make it. An ancient journal entry from a desperate sea captain worried about the survival of his scurvy-deranged crew?(Parsley is high in vitamin C.) Not exactly. It could very well be the clipboard jottings of a cruise chef, surveying his provisions at sea and fretting about, well, his garnishes.
It was a problem that had intrigued me for some time. How does the crew still serve a crisp salad after a week at sea?Has that "fresh" salmon on day five's menu been frozen, or is it just not that fresh?Determined to find out, I booked myself on the Seabourn Goddess I, which has only 116 passengers to feed, a crew-to-guest ratio of 1 to 1.3, and some of the highest culinary standards of any luxury ship. My seven-day Italian and Greek Isles itinerary would depart from the port at Civitavecchia, outside Rome.
Everything needed to turn out three meals a day plus snacks is loaded onto the ship by the kitchen crew, waiters, and busboys (many wearing weight-lifting belts). The provisions, ordered 17 days earlier by chef Anton Schraivogl, come from Köpcke, a company based in the Netherlands that supplies all of Seabourn's vessels when they're in Europe, as well as many other cruise lines and hotels. Prosciutto?Sure, it's from Parma—then it traveled to Köpcke's headquarters in Holland and then by truck back to Italy. Camembert from Normandy?Similar roundabout routing.
Before ordering, the chef had planned menus for the week, based on the passengers' nationalities—knowing that, for instance, Europeans tend to eat sliced fish and cold cuts for breakfast. Unlike media-savvy American chefs, who look more and more like movie stars, the Austrian-born Schraivogl is shy and, although he doesn't smile as readily, bears a striking resemblance to the Pillsbury Doughboy.
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
One of the trickiest aspects of Schraivogl's job is managing volume. He must order enough produce to get through the trip, but not so much that he'll be stuck with leftovers. He carefully monitors fruit consumption: If they're eating a lot, he may have to reprovision. If they're not eating enough, he'll have to find uses for old fruit. That's why strawberries flambé and cherries jubilee are such frequent cruise desserts. Overripe bananas and peaches edited out of the cabins' complimentary fruit baskets routinely turn up at mealtime as bananas Foster or peach sorbet.
DINNER IS SERVED
A sixtyish gentleman squints hard, holding his menu an arm's length away. Giving up, he pushes back his armchair. But no need to return to the cabin to retrieve his glasses: maître d' Jimmy Lochhead's there in a flash, presenting him with a handsome wooden case containing reading glasses in eight different prescriptions. (Alain Ducasse has nothing on these guys.) Across the room, a Honduran couple and their 23-year-old daughter are dining with the captain. How does he decide on whom to bestow this honor?Passengers simply request it.
In fact, the dining situation aboard the Goddess is quite progressive. Unlike many ships, the Goddess offers open seating, which means people may eat anytime they wish and aren't committed to tablemates: one chooses one's dining companions each evening. This can be tricky for Lochhead, since the room has 122 seats—only six extra chairs. When the doors open at 7:30, the tables for two are snapped up. Lochhead has quite a job of it the first couple of nights, but after that, friendships are formed and more diners request tables for four or six.
MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE GALLEY . . .
The biggest difference between the Goddess's stainless-steel galley and a restaurant kitchen is that here there are no open flames. Fire, after all, is the greatest safety hazard on a ship (that's why no irons are allowed in the cabins). Still, the electric burner generates plenty of heat: when the German sous-chef, Mathias Brindöpke, tosses six jumbo prawns in a big pan, they sizzle appropriately.
All the refrigerators and freezers are numbered; No. 23 is known as the Ready-to-Eat Food Fridge. Just before dinner service, one of the garde-manger chefs has filled it with pre-garnished plates. A waiter comes in, picks up a salad of mixed greens, adds scallops, sauces it, et voilà, out it goes. For now, 10 plates of iceberg lettuce wait there, one with Thousand Island dressing already added. Although I had expected cutting-edge contemporary cuisine, this galley is more adept at 1950's-style fare, despite the brochure's claim that if the restaurants of Goddess I and II were on land "they would easily earn two coveted stars from Michelin."
When service is finished, the galley will be cleaned top to bottom, as it is every night and after lunch. The floor is concrete, fitted with drains, making it easy to scrub down. Two crew members sort refuse into twin receptacles, one marked wet garbage, the other burnable garbage. The wet is ground up and dumped in the ocean. "For the fish," explains Schraivogl. As in a good restaurant kitchen, nothing is wasted.
MONDAY, TO MARKET
Though it's only day two, Schraivogl is already thinking about the provisions he'll need to supplement along the way. He wishes tomorrow's stop were Sorrento, which has a great fishmonger. Instead it will be Taormina, Sicily, where Schraivogl doesn't usually go ashore. So he gives his food order to Tony Oteri, who takes matters in hand. Oteri works in Messina, yet he'll come and meet the Goddess wherever in Sicily it happens to be stopping. He's not only the chandler for all of Seabourn, but indeed for all the ships that come into port in Sicily. He's a busy guy.
This time, Schraivogl wants to go ashore with Oteri to pick up fresh fish, fruits, vegetables, and traditional Sicilian confections, so he can see what looks good. At 9 a.m., the Goddess anchors off Giardini Naxos, the port just below the hillside town of Taormina. Oteri (who had bad news—the produce market is closed today) and Schraivogl take the tender ashore to catch a cab. They drive to a tiny fish store in an alley a few blocks from the port. Schraivogl cuts quite a figure in his whites: he towers over everyone in the shop. Monday's not a great day to buy fish—most of what's on display would have been caught on Saturday. The bass, on the other hand, came fresh today. Schraivogl likes this place because the fish is kept cool, unlike in many Italian food shops, which don't have refrigerators.
The next stop is Taormina, up winding Via Luigi Pirandello. The cab passes palms, riotous bougainvillea, vine-covered houses, pink oleander, flowering cactus, and views of the bay. Mount Etna fumes off to the southwest. The driver drops off the chef at La Torinese, a confectionary on the town square. It's filled with paste di mandorla—marzipan everything—all in splendid Technicolor. "Can I have a small tray with all of the torrone?" Schraivogl asks. The fact that the shop owner doesn't understand English is of little concern. She holds up the candies for the chef's inspection. "One each, candied pears in yellow, red, green." Schraivogl doesn't like this stuff himself (he finds it too sweet), but the passengers love it. Afterward, waiting in a long line at the bank across the way, the chef wrings his hands. Anton Schraivogl doesn't like to be off his ship for very long.
THE FRESH AND THE FROZEN
"The broccoli's tight," says the chef. He's inspecting Fridge No. 22, which holds the vegetables. By Friday, it will be practically bare. Most of the parsley is limp, wilted. "This one is history," says Schraivogl, picking up a floppy bunch. "We'll try to get more at Itea."
The meat and fish walk-ins are on Deck Two. One freezer holds enough meat and poultry for two weeks. Besides the usual suspects—boxes of tenderloin, beef strip loins, lamb chops—there are cartons of duckling, crates of quail. While fish is bought fresh, shellfish arrives onboard frozen. Whenever fish comes in, Schraivogl puts on ice what he'll use in the first four or five days and immediately freezes what he'll need for the last two days. So unless he makes additional purchases in port, any fish served on day six or seven will be frozen. (Don't even think about what that means for day five.)
The dry goods pantry holds 20 tubes of wasabi, huge cans of Heinz pickle relish, and 14 pounds of Haco beef-flavored base. Why beef-flavored base?On occasion, it seems, the double consommé just isn't strong enough. "Sometimes," Schraivogl admits, looking a little sad, "we cannot give them a real consommé."
BUT WAIT — WHERE'S THE CAVIAR?
"It's in my cabin," says the chef, with a rare hint of a smile. In his quarters on Deck Five is a small refrigerator where he keeps expensive ingredients—foie gras, truffle oil, saffron, caviar—under lock and key. Twelve pounds of sevruga caviar will be consumed on this seven-day trip, a third of it during a noontime party at which a fully uniformed Jimmy Lochhead and four other fully uniformed waiters march into the swimming pool and, chest-deep in water, serve caviar and champagne to amused guests.
THE POST-BREAKFAST CLUB
"We have to put in our order for the seventeenth," says Schraivogl at the daily meeting in the crew's tiny mess hall with his entremettier (the dessert chef, who is Romanian), two garde-manger cooks (Indian and Dutch), and Brindöpke. Schraivogl goes to the kitchenette and makes chocolate milk, stirring powder into a big glass. His cooks join him at the table, and Schraivogl runs through today's lunch and then dinner, going down a checklist and tweaking it according to what's on board. After the day's menus are set, they plan future shopping expeditions.
Tomorrow's port is Itea, on Greece's Peloponnesian coast. Most of the passengers will visit the ancient temple at Delphi; Schraivogl will excavate a supermarket. There he'll buy olives, dolmas, and baklava for a Greek cocktail buffet to be served on deck the following day as the Goddess navigates the Corinth Canal.
IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN
Insomniacs who must have a club sandwich at three in the morning simply dial 9 on their cabin phone. An answering machine picks up, urging them to leave their order. Isabelle Ringeval, an affable young Frenchwoman, checks the messages every few minutes—guests are not supposed to wait more than 15 minutes for food. One cabin has called every morning at 3:20 and ordered tea for two. Tonight at about 1 a.m., another cabin ordered smoked salmon and a glass of Chardonnay. Cabin 202 called for a cheeseburger. When an order comes in, Isabelle gives it to Liliane Guerlain, the night cook.
Guerlain prefers nights, when she can be her own manager. Most of the orders she prepares are hamburgers, fries, and sandwiches. Besides room service, she's responsible for making the crew's lunch and dinner. Guerlain manages quite well, unless more than three or four orders come in at the same time. Then she has to wake up the sous-chef or Schraivogl himself and ask for help.
A disembarkation is as drawn-out as a divorce—and one can't help but feel that the parties of the first part (the passengers) feel a tad more injured than the parties of the second part (the crew). That's natural—as the melancholy guests make the slow walk down the gangway, the employees are busily readying the ship for the next cruise. At 10 a.m., the latest disembarkation time, the Köpcke truck pulls up to the dock. Now that only a few stragglers are left, Schraivogl, his cooks, waiters, and busboys can drop the pretense of hiding the heavy work. They form the conga line of reprovisioning; on go the weight-lifting belts, and in go the boxes. A few hours later, the Goddess will be ready to welcome another 116 hungry guests.