If you ever want to witness a dictionary-perfect definition of controlled chaos, you should peek into the kitchens of a cruise ship right around the dinner hour. I had the pleasure recently on a trans-Atlantic crossing of Cunard's Queen Mary 2, with chef and "Global Culinary Ambassador" Jean-Marie Zimmermann as host. Despite his lofty title, Chef Zimmermann, who hails from the Strasbourg region of France, was charming and self-deprecating and quite a likeable guy. He also obviously knew what he was doing: Watching him whip up an apple tart, lamb chops and a pear tarte tatin all at once in the kitchen was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
Getting his 150 cooks and chefs on-board to be in synch and refine the food product that so characterizes the cruise experience takes constant vigilance.
"When you think you've got it…well, you haven't," he sighed one afternoon in the cavernous galley of the ship's Britannia restaurant.
Here, a pastry chef was squirting squiggles of chocolate and raspberry sauces onto five hundred plates in anticipation of dessert orders. There, a cook in whites was placing dozens of salad plates onto rolling racks. Everything is made fresh on cruise ships these days, from the breads to sauces and stocks that are boiled up in enormous, stainless-steel cauldrons. The sheer amount of calories being served up is staggering when you apply it to 3,000 passengers who eat three to five times a day, plus another 1,250 crewmembers and officers.
"How many soufflés did you serve last night?" Zimmermann asked his head pastry chef. The answer was 700, which is about as many as a fine-dining restaurant might hope to serve in three months.
At the dinner hour, waiters line up by the dozen with their trays in hand to scoop up ten salads and appetizers at a time, cover the plates with domes and stagger off under the weight of the tray. Electronic boards alert the chefs as to how many entrees are ordered. The traffic pattern is like Chicago O'Hare on a busy holiday weekend.
"At a restaurant like French Laundry, you make a reservation three months in advance and they seat people every twenty minutes," said Chef Zimmermann. "Here, 3,000 people come to the dining room all at once and want to be served."
And then he's off to sample a sauce, make sure the waiters aren't jostling his plates of food around, reprimand the sous chefs for plating a steak too soon. At one point, he joked, "You want my job?"
No thanks, Chef. I want your food. Let's start with those soufflés.