In the old days, food on board a cruise ship was not much awaited. Lack of technology and resources made it impossible for vessels to offer food that was worth advertising. Today, cruise ship chef jobs are among the most coveted sea-faring posts. All because the food culture on board a ship has taken a turn for the better.
There is a certain drama associated with food on board a liner. Cruise ship chefs are expected to create art with every plate, and plates generally run into thousands per meal per day. With the variety of food options available on board today, guests are spoiled for choice and many are not afraid of taking advantage of the high-quality complimentary offers available.
A recent study by travel insurance company Allianz Global Assistance found that as much as 9.4 per cent of guests did not leave the ship when it called on a port thanks to the free food and drinks on board!
This purely goes to show that not only are guests enamoured by the indulgent choices available for free, but they also opt for these over newer culinary experiences they might encounter while out in port. That says a lot about the standard of food served on board cruise ships these days.
Still, there are others who want to go all out and enjoy on-board dining, sometimes paying more than US$100 for a dining experience that could involve the captain, a celebrity chef, a specialty gourmet meal or a themed dinner. At least a couple of times during most cruises, guests are expected to turn up to a formal dinner where they are served items like foie gras, escargots, lobster tails, prime steaks or ribs, game, sabayons, and Boerenjongen’s sundaes.
Thanks to the sheer volume of passengers, cruise ships stagger meal timings to ensure that everyone enjoys a memorable experience. In the main dining room, guests can choose Traditional Dining where they are assigned seats, a time slot and a table, where they will go through an entire cruise dining with the same set of people. With Flexible Dining, they can arrive as they please and will be seated at tables that have vacant seats. A large number choose the latter.
The crowds will obviously show at main meal slots and this is the busiest time for cruise ship chefs – the breakfast rush is between 7am and 9am, lunch between noon to 2pm, and dinner between 6pm and 8pm.
Another dining area that is a big draw, particularly for children and youngsters is the buffet restaurant, where casual attire is permitted. These are usually on the same deck as the pool and often see guests flock in after a tiring swim. Buffets serve a smörgåsbord of items from breakfast, lunch and dinner, and sometimes mid-morning and late afternoon snacks as well. An outdoor grill is usually open serving burgers, hot dogs and fries all day long.
Food and the culture surrounding it is changing on board and cruise ship chef jobs are at their most challenging ever. Guests are demanding more and cruise companies are delivering, bringing a certain standard to dining options on board and providing value for money fare.
Dishes are becoming so trendy that celebrity chefs are cashing in. Cruises offer kitchen tours and cooking classes for food lovers, healthy and special options for fitness enthusiasts and those with dietary restrictions, as well as comfort food that has always worked.
It’s no wonder then that most guests depart with a few added kilos around their waistlines.
Cooking is often seen as an art, but as with all things, beneath the aesthetic surface is a science that helps it come into being. In that essence, cooking is also a science. Knowing what temperatures work best for different types of food and reactions that will take place between different ingredients can all help the chef innovate every time he or she gets to work.
Molecular gastronomy is a style of cooking that celebrates the science behind the art. Cruise ship chef jobs have typically followed set recipes, with ingredients, styles, tastes and even final outlook dependent on a pre-decided menu. But that doesn’t mean there’s no chance at all to get a taste of this innovative style of cooking.
Cruise ships these days have top chefs from around the world opening their own restaurants on board where they cook as they please and chefs in these ventures play with creative dishes every day.
Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas features Wonderland, a restaurant that plays on the fantastical with ‘noodles’ that turn into soup and liquefied ‘olives’ that explode in the mouth. There’s even a ‘garden’ of baby vegetables growing in pumpernickel ‘soil’.
Britannia has a fine dining restaurant called Epicurean which features molecular gastronomy styles that uses precision cooking, freeze drying and the use of liquid nitrogen to place focus on particular aspects of texture, taste and appearance that enhance the dining experience. There are Bloody Mary lollipops with Worcestershire sauce centres, or a prawn and oyster palette with pimento sauce in a paint tube, or mango with coconut milk disguised as a poached egg.
Crystal’s Symphony and Serenity cruise ships also dabble in molecular gastronomy where equipment such as Pacojets, immersion circulators, high emulsion blenders, dehydrators, and smoke and spray guns play a big role in the kitchens. One of the top sellers on the menu is the Délice, a cylindrical white chocolate mousse sprayed with dehydrated strawberries that have been blitzed to look like red velvet powder. In the centre, is puréed passion fruit that serves as a beautiful contrast of texture alongside a coconut macaroon crumble and baumkuchen on the outside.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the birth of ‘molecular gastronomy’ as a term did not take place in a kitchen. A physicist, Nicholas Kurti, and a chemist, Herve This, coined it in 1988 and the principles of this type of cooking have been popularised mostly by chefs like Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck, Grant Achatz of Alinea, Ferran Adrià of El Bulli and others.
Understanding and studying molecular gastronomy can help with inventing new recipes. Today’s world celebrates innovation, but is also quick to criticise. Cruise ship chefs must be open in their work to learn the basics thoroughly and then use the principles of molecular gastronomy to turn classics into new culinary experiences.
Research suggests that the average guest gains around 7-10 pounds on a cruise. With thousands of guests per cruise, that’s a lot of food to cook to satiate the cravings of all. Cruise ship chef jobs demand a wide knowledge of culinary styles to cater to varied tastes and also offer folks on vacation a different experience from what they’re used to at home.
Generally, cruise ships have a main dining room and a buffet area that are complimentary for all passengers. But there are also a number of specialty restaurants, lounges, bars and cafes throughout the liner. The new Carnival Vista has around 29 dining spots across the ship, including two by celebrity chef Guy Fieri. Overall, the types of cuisines cruise ship chefs rustle up fall into one of the following categories:
Despite the many gourmet options often available on board, many guests – especially children – reach out for things they are familiar with. British guests might want bangers and mash, fish and chips, Welsh rarebits, Cornish pastries or sticky toffee pudding. The French look forward to onion soup, gratin dauphinois and croque monsieurs. US comfort food is favoured by many around the world – macaroni and cheese, apple pie, chocolate chip cookies, meat loaf, tuna casserole, fried chicken and stews. Ice cream, hamburgers, pizza, dumplings, sliders, pancakes, and others are popular as easy choices and grab-and-go meals.
All of these – including breads, pastry bases, ice creams, sauces and soups – are made from scratch on board the cruise ship, and as a chef, you could be responsible for any of these.
Cruises offer a well-rounded experience, and while the ship is sailing, it is not uncommon for guests to go the extra mile and try out specialty cuisine to set their vacation apart from the rest. Cooking specialty cuisines often involves using rare ingredients and having a special skill set, so experience works in your favour. Gourmet ingredients used here include foie gras, caviar, stinky tofu, artisanal cheese and coffee, edible seaweed, truffles, certain types of mushrooms, and umeboshi.
The Epicurean on P&O Cruises, for example, serves a range of delicate dishes, from chicken liver parfait with wood smoke and Spanish cured ham with Manchego cheese and olives, to loin of wild boar and salt marsh rack of lamb. Many are cooked using molecular gastronomy techniques and incorporate liquid nitrogen for special textural effects.
Restaurants serving cuisines from around the world find their way on board. Asian tastes – Japanese, Thai and Korean – have long been a favourite, as have Italian and Spanish dishes. Indian food is now making inroads onto cruise lines as well.
Cruise ships also cook cuisines of the ports they stop at, offering trainee chefs a welcome insight into specific regional dishes and varied experience with every contract. Princess Cruises rustles up delicious Bahamian favourites including cracked conch shells, johnnycakes, souse and guava duff. Uniworld’s south of France tour sees dishes like daube provencal, bouillabaise, and iced Montélimar nougat parfait.
Now and then, as more people realise cruising is fun and do-able, cruise ship kitchens receive special requests from guests. These span the range from allergies to diets and even baby food. Companies differ in their policies of what is available to guests on board, but as competition increases, they widen their offerings to be more inclusive.
There might be requests to tweak certain dishes to suit special requirements, particularly when ordering room service. Food is generally required for vegetarian, vegan, low or no fat, low or no salt, lactose intolerant, dairy free, gluten- or wheat-free, low cholesterol, diabetic, kosher and halal diets, as well as allergies to certain ingredients.
In all cases, the more of a variety of food you cook as a cruise ship chef, the better your chances of moving forward in your career.
Working a cruise ship chef job is quite unlike anything you’ll find on land. Living and work conditions vary with each company but in general you’ll find similar situations across the board. On your first contract, it’s easy to get stressed with unfamiliar circumstances, but you will soon discover a method to the madness.
Before you even leave for your port of embarkation, you’ll have to pack your bags and former cruise ship employees have the ultimate advice: pack light, but include lots of white socks and underwear. This might seem like strange advice, but once on board you will find that it makes a lot of sense. Cabins are small, particularly for those lower in the hierarchy, so storing bulky suitcases are difficult. Shelf space is also limited. Crew are required to be in uniform – typically white – while on duty so the only clothes required are for the times you are free on board and in port. The white socks and underwear come in handy for hot days in the kitchen when you need to change often. However, do carry a sweater as the air-conditioning in crew areas where you might relax after hours often gets rather cold.
Once you arrive, you will be given your contract and information about the ship. It is imperative to read these very carefully so you are intimately aware of all the do’s and don’ts on board, and what standards and principles will govern you during the length of your contract. The initial few days of the job for first time cruise ship staff include orientation and training in things like safety and other aspects related to the job you will do on board.
Always remember the way to your cabin when it is shown to you, as without signs, many new employees find themselves wasting valuable time searching for what is now their home. Also note which areas are meant for staff and those where only guests and officers are allowed. Most cruise ship companies take engagement with guests very seriously.
You will be required to keep your cabin clean at all times, so it helps to create a schedule with your roommate of how this will work. Additionally, it is possible to pay a cleaner a small amount each week to clean it for you. Cabin inspections occur every month so you must also ensure you know what is in your room. You can be in severe trouble if contraband items like drugs, candles, toasters are found in your cabin, even if it belongs to your roommate.
Doing laundry is usually not accounted for when planning time off on first contracts, but this is important. Often, there’s just one or two laundry rooms so it’s imperative to hold out for as long as you can, and then always stick around the room when your clothes are in the machine. Theft of clothes, or rushed crew taking your load out and replacing it with theirs, is not unheard of.
It helps to carry your mobile phone and laptop with you, along with chargers so you can take advantage of the heavily discounted crew Wi-Fi and internet facilities on board or get in touch with your family at free Wi-Fi spots at port. Saving movies or favourite TV shows on your laptop or hard drive can come in handy during off-duty hours when your roommate might be asleep and you do not want to switch on the cabin television.
The most important tip to surviving your first contract is your relationships with the hundreds of colleagues and supervisors you will meet and engage with every day. With so many nationalities and personality types, it is difficult to judge immediately who will be a genuine friend. It is advisable to keep your cards close to your chest and make friends at a pace you are comfortable with. Getting into arguments or heated political debates are better attempted with good friends.
Your first contract will be a breeze if you always remember to work hard, be a good person to all on board, and always put the guest first.
Also read the ultimate guide to tackling seasickness here
Almost every association evoked by the term cruise ships is positive, fun and glamorous. Cruise ships are large floating cities of great times and memories. But there’s always another side to the coin. Have you ever wondered what happened to all the waste generated by the cruise lines?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that around 21,000 gallons of sewage is generated on average every day from a cruise ship carrying 3,000 passengers and crew. And considering there are dozens of cruise ships plying the world’s waters every day, that’s a lot for the ocean to handle.
Green groups have often criticized cruise lines for their environmental standards, and Friends of the Earth (FOE) even has a report card that grades cruises and companies on their eco-friendly practices.
Even so, many cruise ship companies are incorporating measures to reduce their carbon footprint and promote recycling. All companies registered with Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) have agreed to follow the group’s voluntary stringent environmental standards for wastewater and recycling.
By and large, it is recommended that cruises using advanced wastewater treatment technology are more eco-friendly, as they allow the vessel to treat water to a level that makes it safe to discharge at sea.
Some, like Holland America’s Vista fleet, have switched to diesel-electric or gas turbine engines to reduce emissions. Adding gas turbines to the mix can help reduce emissions of toxic nitrous oxide by 80 per cent and sulphur oxide by 98 per cent. Holland America also uses soy-based ink for all on board material, detergents for dry cleaning made of plant or fruit extract, and digital technology to replace the chemicals used in x-ray screening.
Recycling, incinerating and waste processing are now the norm on cruise ships, and many companies are moving further ahead in adding more advanced green technology on board. Items that need to be replaced, such as small appliances, linen, furniture, mattresses and kitchenware, are often given to charity instead of being thrown into landfills.
Some cruises, such as Costa, treat 100 per cent of all waste at ports they berth at, and also convert food waste into compost. Others include energy efficient lighting, low flow showers and eco-friendly dry cleaning.
Disney Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line recycle their cooking oil, converting much of it into bio-diesel. Disney also turns sea water potable by using excess heat from its boilers, and uses the condensation from its air-conditioners to wash the decks.
Most cruise ships offer training to all crew in environmentally safe practices, and some even have a special officer who overlooks and monitors standards.
A majority of cruise ships also involve passengers as far as possible with information packets on eco-friendly guidelines to their stay on board in all rooms. Segregated recycling stations are located throughout the ship, including in the service areas used by staff.
Crystal Cruises even has a free volunteer programme for staff and guests that allows them to participate in community conservation programmes in their ports of call. Other companies offer lectures, programmes for children, beach or park cleaning in port, donation drives and other activities.