Inside the kitchen of a “thinking man’s cruise”
I am not what you would describe as the target audience for a cruise. I’m 30, single, childless, and prefer to travel independently to places that are not necessarily accessible by giant boat. But a cruise ship is exactly what I found myself on earlier this summer, in the middle of the Baltic Sea, chugging along from Germany’s northern coast to Denmark and Norway.
I wanted to visit Scandinavia, and cruises are a good way to cover a lot of ground in a little bit of time with little logistical fuss. I figured if a destination struck my fancy I could always go back. Plus, I was curious about the cruise ship experience from an anthropological perspective. While David Foster Wallace scared the crap out of me with his infamous essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” I’d heard that Viking Cruises, who invited me on this trip, was the “thinking man’s cruise,” with smaller boats (900 passengers as opposed to several thousand on bigger lines like Royal Caribbean or Princess), no children allowed, no casinos, and, perhaps most importantly to me, above-average food.
So that is how I found myself on this cruise, though in truth, no one quite knew what to do with me. I was the youngest passenger by decades and traveling alone, so many of the other guests (mostly American, mostly retirees) assumed I was crew. “Is it your day off?” asked one friendly cruiser when I disembarked in Copenhagen. It was a confusing exchange until I realized he thought maybe I had been a part of the ABBA cover band that performed the night before.
Anyhow, the ship was nice, with cool blues and blonde woods, all very understated Scandinavian in aesthetic, and most of the guests seemed well-behaved, except at the gelato counter, which was swarmed after dinner. Speaking of dinner, the food was generally what I would describe as “aspirational gourmet,” meaning lots of things wrapped in phyllo dough, drizzled with truffle oil, and plated with the aid of ring molds, which is, 1) right on track for the target audience, and 2) preferable to the neverending buffet I had feared would engulf me.
Breakfast was a big deal on the boat. You might eat lunch and/or dinner at port, but during breakfast, nearly all of the 900 passengers were on board, and hungry. Room service runs 24 hours, but most passengers flocked to the “World Cafe,” one of the more casual of the ship’s seven restaurants, which serves all the usual breakfast suspects (eggs, bacon, pancakes, cereals, pastries, etc.), both as a buffet and made-to-order. It’s positively bumping by 8 a.m., and pretty much deserted by 9, as passengers toddle off to their activities for the day.
I wanted to know how the kitchen crew handled the breakfast onslaught each day, so I arranged for an early-morning kitchen tour with Executive Chef Eric Poutet. As we worked our way through the main commissary in the lower level of the boat, which does most of the heavy lifting for food that’s not cooked to order upstairs, he threw out some numbers. The ship goes through about 4,500 eggs every day (which includes 450 omelets and all permutations of fried/poached/hard-boiled), 250 individual orders of pancakes, 130 pounds of bacon, and 500 pounds of salmon, much of it smoked. The room service orders are taken the night before and prepped, as much as possible, in advance; hundreds of plates were lined up next to several gallons worth of raw scrambled eggs awaiting their turn in an individual-sized cooking pan.
“The process is similar to cooking at a restaurant or hotel, but there’s more regulations on a cruise,” Poutet said through a thick French accent. “Everything here is very careful—all the sanitization, all the cross-contamination, all that. We record everything, and there are random spot checks. We can’t keep any food out for more than four hours; after that we have to throw it out, so everything is very fresh,” he said.
There’s an old joke about not eating fish after the third day on a cruise, but most of the coffers are replenished at ports every few days. New fish comes aboard every three to four days, and vegetables every five, though all of the meat is supplied at the start of the 15-day trip, in frozen form.
My biggest suspicion about cruise ship food was that everything I ate on a Wednesday would have been repurposed out of leftovers from Thursday, but that is very much not the case, says Poutet. It’s against regulations, to start with, but on top of that, it’s unnecessary. Despite having to discard open food after four hours, there’s relatively little waste on a cruise, because there’s a ton of planning that goes into the meals. Unlike a restaurant, where the number of guests may fluctuate, cruises have a much sharper idea of how many people they’ll serve each day and, based on data from previous trips, what and how much they like to eat. Menus for all of the restaurants are set in advance at the corporate headquarters, and food orders are exacting in their specifications to execute each menu cycle.
Back upstairs at the World Cafe, the breakfast rush is in full swing. I sidle up to a friendly-looking couple from Pennsylvania and ask them what they think of the food so far. “Oh, we’ve done five other cruises, and the food here is by far the best,” the wife said. We chat for a few minutes about their favorite dishes (pancakes, Danishes) before the husband, looking slightly antsy, excused himself, explaining: “I need to go up for thirds.”