Inside the kitchens of a cruise ship

I waited until the very end of my weeklong report to really get into the food on the cruise. I was very fortunate to meet with head chef, David Reihana from New Zealand, who gave me a private tour of two of the twelve kitchens aboard the Liberty of the Seas.  Engaging and gregarious, it is easy to see how much Chef David loves his job. While admittedly not four-star dining, I am actually more in awe at the overall quality of the food served considering what is accomplished on board in these kitchens. It is all very, very impressive.

For starters, 20,000 meals a day are prepared – over 80,000 plates of food. To grasp the magnitude of this, you have to understand that I boarded the ship on a Saturday morning about noon, with the instruction that a snack would be available at the Windjammer Café, where – for the rest of the week – the morning buffet served most of the guests but which also provided an almost-continual offering of fruit, burgers, hot dogs, salads, sandwich-makings, soups, stir-fry, chicken, and a huge bounty of desserts.  On our departing day, the breakfast buffet was once again available, starting as early as 5:00 a.m. Yet, as I was departing the ship by 8:00 a.m., I could already see the next cruise’s passengers lining up who would be given the same instruction to head to the Windjammer. That is correct; the turn-around time for the ship is about eight hours and during the docking time, new provisions are loaded on board to feed the next 80,000 plates of food to be served that day.

During the week, the kitchen will go through in excess of 70,000 eggs alone. 400 gallons of soup is prepared each and every day. What really surprised me was the magnitude of the pastry department; no breads or rolls are brought in – everything is baked fresh daily. While the main kitchen is staffed twenty-four hours a day for prep work, it is the bakery that probably impressed me the most because I was eating miniature croissants every day for breakfast. Thinking that they might take shortcuts in purchasing frozen puff pastry, Chef David advised me that the only food that is frozen is fish – everything else is prepared fresh every day.  Because of the lack of storage space, even simple items like dinner rolls can’t be brought on and stored. They all have to be made fresh daily.

There is some amazing equipment in the kitchen. Because so many people have to be served so much food in such a short time, there is an entire corridor of two-sided refrigerators where dishes like some of the desserts are stored. To keep the wait staff from crowding the plating area, the plated desserts are trayed and stacked for holding in one side of the fridge and the captain can pull them out for service from the other side of the fridge. The giant meat roasters cost in excess of $100,000 each. During my walk-through I shot a picture of the evening briefing where that evening’s entrées are plated for display and instruction. Actually, five plates are prepared for consistency, one for tasting and the other four to be placed in the four different kitchens.

The kitchen is staffed with 230 persons, who are all trained internally. They have a three-color neck scarf system; Red is a full-fledged chef, Blue is an assistant chef, and Yellow is a trainee and it takes three to four years to go from a Yellow kerchief to a Blue one. And the entire kitchen staff is trained internally. The waiters are tested constantly on the meals being served. There are significantly more issues to be dealt with now in the industry with the rise of various allergies. One must also be aware, not only with the efficiency, but also with the cleanliness. Quite proud of this fact, Chef David advised me that on their last inspection, the ship received 99 out of hundred points. If a blast freezer were off by a few degrees, than they would lose five points immediately. Only the French Laundry kitchen seemed as clean to me.

Besides the three daily meals for guests, there is also the entire boat’s crew, which has to be fed, and because these people mainly come from the Philippines, India, and the Caribbean, they obviously prefer their own cuisines. I was surprised to see, on the guests’ menu each evening, a vegetarian Indian dish. I did try one; a mushroom masala served with raita, rice, and a pappadam. It was still a bit on the spicy side, which I enjoyed I mentioned the Windjammer Café, but there are two specialty restaurants for high-end dining, Chops, a steakhouse, and Portofino, an Italian restaurant, as well as a Johnny Rockets and a Sorrento’s pizza on the Promenade. Oh yes, and room service is also available. There is this jaw-dropping amazement of the sheer quantities.

The giant showstopper of the cruise was a midnight buffet displayed on the pool deck. This was an event for the kitchen to showcase their talents with decorative breads, modeled cakes, carved fruits, whole roasted pigs, ice sculptures, and more food than one can conceive. For me, much of what I appreciated throughout the ship was those dishes, which were a bit more inventive. While my family often stuck with more mainstream dishes like classic prime rib or roast chicken breast with herbs, I would often make up a meal of several appetizers like Singaporean Laksa soup, Turkish dumplings, a Tilapia with a light curry, and the daily soups. They were a favorite of mine; chilled strawberry with mint, a chilled watermelon with a brunoise of celery and cucumber, and a stunning, rich pumpkin soup.

Finally, one cannot leave a ship of this magnitude without being completely overwhelmed with the cordiality and graciousness of the entire crew. These people are working seven days a week for months on end. Upper levels of management like Chef Reihana gets two months off at a time, he is still on board, working four SOLID months – and anyone who knows what a chef goes through in a kitchen understands how strenuous and exhausting that type of work is. That the folks in the kitchen, the waiters, and the entire crew maintain a level of excitement and hospitality literally blew me away. I was greeted with smiles from every member of the crew; everyone in the kitchen and every person on the boat exudes genuine warmth and if nothing else, I hope to take that sense of exuberance and conviviality off the boat with me. I only hope to be able to offer the warmth and friendship I received on the boat. And a special thanks to Chef Reihana and Food and Beverage Manager, Cecile Kokes for letting me behind the scenes!

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