Chef on the sea-Running a cruise kitchen might not always be a smooth sailing, but it’s one hell of an experience
From cooking Meethe Chawal at the langar, to sweating it out at street-side grills of kebab vendors or in five-star kitchens -my culinary journey has helped me enjoy vast experiences. The same journey dropped me in the middle of the vast South China Sea aboard not one, but two luxurious, beautiful cruise ships, Voyager of the Seas and Quantum of the Seas, from the fleet of the award-winning cruise liner Royal Caribbean International! The number of Indians opting for Royal Caribbean cruises has been increasing significantly, due to the customer first policy & quality offered by the cruise liner, and of course, the insatiable travel bug in Indians.
The very idea of curating authentic Indian cuisine for 5200 people (4000 guests, 1200 crew members) in one go, had me super excited. It was an exhilarating experience, with lots of fond memories, lessons but most importantly, a unique experience that I am looking forward to enjoy more! Let me share a quick ‘behind-the-scenes’ peek on what goes inside a cruise kitchen, to bring a sumptuous bouquet of delicacies from all over the world to the guests, while being surrounded by nothing but water. All aboard, readers!
Logistics-A segment that can’t be cruised through easily
As chefs in restaurants, we are used to not being limited by processes or ingredients. And also, the scale is relatively much smaller. However, on a cruise, the raw materials like fresh vegetables, milk and dairy are carried from the departure port and one needs to make the most out of it, and offer multiple courses at that at multiple venues. It was a challenge at the beginning, but the efficiency of the staff members on the ship, the organized way of working and the abundance and quality of the raw material at hand made it a breeze. It was also a great learning experience on how to serve bulk food. Now, I have cooked bulk food at gurudwaras. But, this was at a completely different level. Here, it was not just about cooking in bulk but also about presentation and variety.
A lot of logistic planning goes into preparing and presenting all that food on time and spectacularly so different destinations are chosen as distribution centers. For instance, meat and fish come from distribution centers based out of Miami due to its strategic location, and there is a lead time of 90 days. It takes quite a bit of hard work and vision by the chefs and sous chefs to bring those delicious dishes on to the tables. So the next time you enjoy a serving on board a cruise, know that a lot of strategizing has gone into it.
A grand feast unlike any other
Turning up 18000 meals round the clock every day for a diverse group of guests, with a menu that caters to the needs of different nationalities, can be overwhelming. But here again, I was highly impressed with the fundamental system that Royal Caribbean has on-board regarding the menu. The core menu, about 60% of the items, is fixed by Royal Caribbean International, while 40% is based on the nationalities of the passengers on a given itinerary. Based on The database of the first five weeks of sailings, a study is carried out to observe the eating preferences of the guests. The menu is then redesigned accordingly.
The pressure on the kitchen is enormous, as unlike restaurants where guests get split up, one needs to serve a gathering of 800 people in one go. Also, food is not cooked on an open flame on a cruise, which alters things further. The main dining area opens at 5.30 pm and 1800 meals have to be ready by then. On my part, I was responsible for not only curating the Indian section of the menu but also training the staff on certain aspects, and it was a great experience interacting with a highly professional, courteous, knowledgeable and responsible culinary team on board!
An experience most cherished
For someone who has spent 2 years in Goa and in Boston, living and working by the seaside was not something new to me. But to actually manage a huge kitchen at sea, was a transformative experience. The action in the kitchen, and the quaint and calm of the seas, proved to be a great contrast. The cruise kitchen is a well-oiled machine, and everybody realizes that timing is of the essence here. In fact, the buzz and highly mechanized and structured activity in the kitchen can give you an adrenaline rush!
I personally, thoroughly enjoyed curating and preparing a menu that puts the spotlight on Indian cuisine. My main consideration was to create a menu that had an ideal blend of some scene stealers along with comfort food such as the usual pickle and papad counter with dal khichdi, raita, Paneer gravy etc. Most of the times, chefs in their eagerness to feature the best of Indian delicacies, forget to offer the guest a true, earthy taste of India, and as an Indian chef, I feel it is my responsibility to bring that experience on a plate. The instant gratification and responses received from the guests further strengthened this belief, and I enjoyed interacting with them a lot. It is interesting how food can bring back memories, experiences or take someone on a nostalgic trip, or even make you meet someone who can school you on how their mother/grandmother’s recipe of kadhi is the best way to go about it!
I strongly believe that travel makes a good chef better. So when I was offered the chance of travelling onboard the Voyager of the Seas, I accepted it. And it has been a phenomenally rewarding experience. Apart from the places I visited and renewed my acquaintance with, the ship itself presented unique entertainment and unwinding options, such as a good breakfast at the Windjammer, a quick round of table tennis, amazing beer cocktails and so forth. Above all, the wonderful friends I made, the beautiful landscapes I saw and the profound experiences I had, have left me yearning for more. It has also re-established my belief about the ultimate relationship man has with food, which is happiness, whether on land, or at sea.