A few weeks ago, I was in Houston to visit the Bayport cruise terminal, which on Tuesday welcomed Caribbean Princess as its first homeporting ship since 2006. During my stay at Royal Sonesta in the Galleria section of the city, I learned that the hotel’s executive chef, Peter Laufer, spent nearly a decade working in cruise-ship kitchens at Norwegian Cruise Lines before returning to land-based culinary endeavors.
I caught up with him earlier this week to ask what it’s like to cook for thousands of passengers on a moving vessel. The result was a candid conversation, in which Laufer told me about the pleasures of being able to walk to work onboard and how flexible dinner seatings in the main dining room actually improve food quality.
Differences Between Working at Sea and on Land
There are a few things Laufer misses about working in a ship galley: “I now have to deal with the day-to-day headaches of driving to work, dealing with traffic and cooking my own meals when I’m at home.” Likewise, there are some he doesn’t miss: “The kitchen doesn’t move anymore; I don’t have to worry about my pots and pans or soup spilling over because the ship is rocking and rolling.”
Although he still spends most of his time in the kitchen these days, he says land-based executive chef duties involve a lot more meetings and administrative work than those of seagoing execs, whose respective cruise lines make many of the decisions. Plus, orders on land need to be placed daily, rather than weekly, and land-based culinary work often requires dealing with three or four different menus at a time to cater to various groups and events.
Keeping Quality Intact When Cooking for Thousands
It’s got to be hard to put a personal touch on every single one of the thousands of meals served in cruise-ship restaurants daily, right? Laufer says, “It starts when the product comes onboard. We check the quality and make sure it’s stored and handled properly. You gotta ‘wow’ the guest the first moment he steps in,” he stresses. “From day one, you’ve got to give him the right experience. You have to produce high quality because people have no other options when they’re on a ship.”
Creating Dishes and Sourcing Local Ingredients
“Menus were predetermined on traditional seven-night sailings, but longer cruises — 12 to 14 nights — had more freedom,” Laufer explains of his ability to create his own dishes using local ingredients. “I contacted local farmers and fishermen.” Laufer says that also led to an educational series of offerings, where passengers received cooking demos and learned things like the differences between farm-raised and wild Chilean sea bass on South America itineraries.
Working With Many Nationalities
Laufer says working with a diverse group onboard shaped him as a land-based chef. “It helped me quite a bit,” he notes. “We had about 20 nationalities in the kitchen — Indonesian, Filipino, Indian, South American, American, and I’m German. The blend of cultures was just amazing. New people would come, and we’d have them cook a couple of cultural dishes to implement on the buffets.” Because staff hailed from so many countries, “on certain trends, [cruise ships] might be a little more ahead,” Laufer says.
How Chefs Really Feel About Special Requests
Basically, a decent kitchen staff will bend over backward to make sure you get what you want. “We’re prepared for gluten-free, lactose-free, nut-free, whatever. If it’s onboard or if we can get it in port, we can do it.” But, he adds that most people do (and should) let the ship know, prior to sailing, if they have special dietary restrictions.
Freestyle Dining and How It Changed Everything
Laufer spent his last two years at sea aboard Norwegian Sky, where he helped to implement Norwegian Cruise Line’s Freestyle Dining, the pioneering “eat when you want” concept that has now been adopted as a flexible option on most cruise lines. “The workload changed because with [traditional set] seatings, we knew we’d get 1,000 passengers at 6 and 1,000 passengers at 8:30. There was also increased preparation flow and monitoring of production because [with Freestyle] we never knew when people were coming. The food was also better quality because it was cooked in smaller batches.”