A Floating City: Cooking on a Celebrity Cruise Ship

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Brunch dessert buffet with ice sculpture. Photo by Mary Ladd
Brunch dessert buffet with ice sculpture. Photo by Mary Ladd

60,000 pounds of fresh fruit, 2,200 pounds of assorted cheeses, 14,000 pounds of potatoes, 10,000 pounds of whole chicken: the numbers for feeding guests on a Celebrity Millennium cruise ship are bigger than any catering gig I’ve tackled and definitely interesting from an operational standpoint. For this type of dining, sauces and dressings are all made in-house: my onboard kitchen tour confirmed this and I was surprised at how fresh things tasted. Cruise ships are floating cities, with constant food and entertainment options—for wine, there are those self-serve by-the-ounce kiosks open 24 hours a day. Vodka is the most popular spirit. Cocktail options beyond martinis range from Moscow Mule to passion fruit and pear drinks. The food displays reminded me of cooking school and catering, where I quickly learned how much time and care it takes to make a fruit sculpture, an ice carving or a delectable looking house made out of three kinds of bread.

The Celebrity Millennium in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises
The Celebrity Millennium in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

I was excited to see the natural sites via a recent cruise to Alaska, and appreciated the idea of not having to plan, cook or clean for anyone. Eating (and drinking) onboard a floating city is fun, comfortable, and even exciting--there’s a reason Celebrity was featured on Top Chef for exactly this sort of modern and tasty fare (of course, the TV arrangement likely took some brand negotiating). One trend at Qsine, one of the many restaurants onboard, included appetizers served in a standing drawer--really the coolest presentation I've seen in a long time. I interviewed Chef Steve van der Merwe, Corporate Chef at Celebrity Cruises to find out more about cooking on a cruise ship. His comments have been edited for length.

Chef Steve van der Merwe. Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises
Chef Steve van der Merwe. Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

Bay Area Bites: What is it like to cook on a cruise ship?
van der Merwe: It presents its own unique challenges. Guest demographics change every cruise. Or the ship may experience heavy seas, making it rather interesting in the galleys. Safety is of utmost importance at all times. We use specialized cooking equipment that can withstand the ship's rolling-and-rocking motion.

Bay Area Bites: How many kitchens are on board?
van der Merwe: Celebrity Millennium has a total of eight galleys and a double occupancy of 2,158 guests. The ship serves over 10,500 meals per day, including the crew of around 950.


Bay Area Bites: Intricate ice sculptures, elaborate bread houses, dynamic brunch buffet displays: all part of the dining experience aboard Celebrity Cruise. What sort of planning and details go into that?
van der Merwe: The Executive Chef will plan themed brunches reflecting the time of year. A Christmas brunch features Santa Claus with his reindeer carved in ice. Gingerbread houses are customized, too. Ports-of-call influence the offerings and if a ship is docked in the Mediterranean, we source the best quality, fresh mozzarella cheese and olive oil. At the various ports, guests can indulge in a taste of the local culture.

Bay Area Bites: What size ice blocks are used for ice sculptures?
van der Merwe: The ice blocks come in 350-pound slabs. Carving an ice block can take up to 90 minutes. The most time-consuming part is allowing the ice block to "soften" a little for around two hours in a temp-controlled environment.

Bay Area Bites: What was it like to move up the ranks?
van der Merwe: Challenging. I had a lot of cooks in the galley around the same young age as me. Competition was tough. However, we all met for beer and talked about the evening's service after work.

It always was a little daunting being moved to a new section. On ships, there is very little time for training, so you would be told ahead of time that you would be moving sections and you had to balance your section, while learning and training for the next one. We all find ourselves “in the weeds" sometimes.

Bay Area Bites: What are the daily food numbers like?
van der Merwe: If we have a hot day at sea, our fresh salads and fruit consumption spike. If it's cold and rainy, guests gravitate to heavier, hot meals.

    On a seven-night cruise Celebrity Millennium will use:
  • 2,200 dozen eggs
  • 500 gallons of whole milk
  • 3,200 individual whole milks
  • 60,000 pounds of fresh fruit
  • 2,200 pounds of assorted cheeses
  • 14,000 pounds of potatoes
  • 10,000 pounds of whole chicken

Bay Area Bites: How does the 24-hour bakery production unfold?
van der Merwe: We produce all our own pastries and bread. There are seven bakers; four bakers work the day shift and three at night. There are an additional 16 cooks in the pastry section as well, and two cooks for the night shift. The pastry team produces a lot of the cake sponges and other items needed for the next day. There is one cook solely dedicated to making ice cream and one who makes gelato on board.

Bay Area Bites: What is a funny memory from cooking on board?
van der Merwe: When I worked in the production galley, there were three Chef De Parties and a 2nd Cook. The guy in charge of the cold pantries for the entire ship was making pie pastry. He measured his flour and added butter and then walked away to get some salt. The mixer was still off and switched to the lowest setting (no. 1). I walked past the mixer and switched the setting to the highest (no. 4). When the poor guy returned he hit the "on" button without checking the setting. As a result, the paddle blitzed the cold butter and flour into the biggest flour cloud you have ever seen in your life. We all laughed uncontrollably. He was less than impressed by the fact that he was covered from head to toe in flour.