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Workplace Cruise Kitchen: A restaurant on the high seas for up to 6,000 people and 24-hour service requires sophisticated management and special logistics. © Franz Neumeier

By Franz Neumeier for "moving"

Cruise passengers are discerning customers, especially when it comes to food. But tackling the logistics in the kitchens behind the scenes of a sophisticated onboard restaurant is a Herculean task, even on smaller vessels like the Holland America Line cruise ship Veendam, which carries 1,350 passengers. Only the best chefs survive!

"We need the lettuce first, right now," the steward calls into his radio. He is standing at the railings of the Veendam, which docked into Montevideo an hour ago, his brow creased into an expression of concern. After the long cruise from Chile, round Cape Horn to Uruguay, the galleys are in desperate need of fresh fruit and vegetables. It is only 9 o'clock in the morning, but the sun is already scorching down. The steward has had the lettuce plucked from the field only this morning and now it needs to be taken quickly to the cold storage room onboard.

Cooking in dimensions – a logistic masterstroke

Pallets of lettuces, cucumbers, tomatoes and strawberries are being loaded onto the ship by forklift truck. Even a comparatively small ship like the Veendam from the Holland America Line with 1,350 passengers consumes huge amounts of resources: 5.7 tons of fresh vegetables, 2.1 tons of potatoes, 3.8 tons of meat, 1.7 tons of poultry, 18,000 eggs, 1.3 tons of flour are consumed every week, while over 1,600 bottles of wine and 450 bottles of champagne and sparkling wine are drunk. The biggest cruise ship in the world, the Allure of the Seas, has to plan in a totally different dimension, having to take care of over 8,000 passengers and crew. In a single week onboard, for example, 31 tons of fresh vegetables are consumed. This ocean giant is therefore moored in Florida all year round, where restocking its huge volume of supplies can be easily organized. How does a galley (i.e., a cruise ship's onboard kitchen) differ from the kitchen of a big hotel?

Rudi Sodamin, Master Chef for the Holland America Line, says: 

I hate it when people talk about cruise-line kitchens. A kitchen is a kitchen. No matter where it is. It needs to be good, down to earth and honest. Only a few mainland restaurants can truly appreciate the kind of service that is offered onboard ships today.

Enormous logistic challenge from supply to warehousing

Because the real difference between a ship's galley and a kitchen is the enormous logistical challenge it poses, which is kept largely hidden from the passengers. Not only in procuring supplies, but also ensuring that everything runs smoothly behind the scenes. The swinging galley door is separates the hectic 24-hour everyday work in the galleys from the dream world of the elegant cruise ship restaurant, where passengers enjoy a romantic illusion of ease and perfection, helped along by mighty crystal chandeliers, imposing racks of wine, waiters in white uniforms and the dulcet tones of a string quartet. But back to the lettuce that is just arriving onboard the ship in Montevideo. To ensure that it remains fresh for ten days, it simply has to be stored at the right temperature. By the end of the cruise only the outer leaves will have suffered slightly; there is little waste. Fruit, however, is a different story altogether. Once it has reached a specific stage of ripeness, it has to be stored in a different place so as not to accelerate the ripening of other fruit in adjacent boxes. This is a science in itself. The captain plays an important role in galley logistics: He produces wave and swell forecasts. If the seas are going to be stormy, stabilizing nets are put up over the pallets of fruit and vegetables, sacks of rice and onions, cartons of drinks and egg cartons in the stores. And the galley has to fetch what it needs in advance. Because when the seas are rough, it is too dangerous to access the stores, even when the nets have been put up.

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© Gladieu/Le Figaro Magazine/laif

Long-term planning and standard dishes

And when the seas are calm, precise planning and experience are called for. Meat and often fish, too, are supplied frozen. To ensure that quality does not suffer, it is thawed gradually over a period of 48 to 72 hours in stores at different temperatures. But how do you know how many lobster and how many portions of chateaubriand are going to be ordered at the gala dinner in three days' time? The bigger the ship, the easier it is, says Ivo Jahn, Executive Chef of the Allure of the Seas until recently and now Culinary Trainer on the Holland America Line.

It's a question of experience. We know our guests very well.

So while long-term menu planning and stocking the necessary supplies require a lot of know-how, no crystal ball is required. Planning is carried out in the central office of the shipping company, drawing on the information that is sent by each individual ship. Most shipping companies place central orders and ship supplies by container all round the world. It takes considerable effort, but the company can be sure that the same menu is served on all of the ships in the fleet, saving a lot of money by procuring supplies centrally.

To ensure that guests receive a consistent level of high quality when they order from the extensive menus in any of the up to 20 restaurants onboard, depending on the size of the ship most shipping companies have so-called "traveling chefs" - experienced chefs, who travel from ship to ship in the respective fleet for a large part of the year, training the kitchen staff, drawing their attention to the company's principles and making sure the corporate identity is upheld. Monitoring a fleet of ten or more ships is one of the greatest challenges in catering on cruise ships.

Hans-Peter Heine: "My guests can have anything they want."

There is still scope for individual special requests even in large cruise ship galleys—and not just vegan, kosher or gluten-free menus. "My guests can have anything they want," is what one of the best in the industry, the Executive Chef of the Norwegian Jade, Hans-Peter Heine, said in an interview a year ago. He has sadly since passed away.

And if I cannot do that any longer, then it will be time to go home. In every restaurant in the world, you can give the guest what he or she wants. It is up to the waiters and the chefs, whether they want to do that or not.

In the meantime, the Veendam has left the harbor and sailed off for Buenos Aires— time now for a multiple-course dinner in the main restaurant, garnished of course with fresh lettuce from Montevideo. Once the cruise ship is on its way, the work behind the scenes in the galley is hardly any different from what goes on in large hotel restaurants on the mainland. In preparation, the lettuce is washed; on the very big ships, such as the Oasis of the Seas, they have their own specially designed salad-washing machine. Then the salad is dressed and served by the waiter. On cruise ships it all just takes place on a slightly larger scale. 

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