Feeding a Cruise Ship

Photo by Maggie Jackson

Flava went behind the scenes aboard Celebrity Reflection to find out what it takes to cater 3,000 hungry passengers at sea.

Midnight in the western Caribbean and somewhere out there in the darkness floats a fantastic beast: 126,000 tons of steel carrying, among other things, some 3,046 guests, 1,260 crew, 10,000 bottles of wine, 171 chefs, two swimming pools and a lawn of real grass.

Most of the passengers are slumbering in their cabins but even in the small hours there is still plenty of activity across the ship’s 16 levels. Mountains of pastry and bread dough are being rolled out, kneaded and proven in the bakery, ahead of breakfast service starting at 6 a.m. There’s the whir and hiss of a milk steamer as some night owl orders a cappuccino at the Coffee Station, and the whiff of a Spaghetti Bolognese and brush of footsteps on carpet as an attendant carries room service to a suite. Welcome to Celebrity Reflection, one of the world’s strangest catering operations.

“A typical day? Very long!” jokes Clint Kelu, Celebrity Reflection’s Food and Beverage Director. “In an average day, we serve 16,000 dishes. Preparation is key… this is effectively a floating resort.”

“The operation really doesn’t stop,” agrees Lazo Organdjiev, Restaurant Operations Manager. “You’ll never go in the kitchen and find it empty.”

The ship – the latest addition to Celebrity Cruises’ fleet of luxury liners – departed Miami two days ago, stocked with all the food and drink needed to sustain her guests and crew for a seven-day voyage. After a stop in Cozumel, Mexico she sailed onto Grand Cayman; next up are Jamaica and Haiti.

So how does one organize supplies enough to feed thousands of mouths a day? Dashing to Kirk’s is hardly an option when you’re on a 1,047ft ship. Lazo points to the digital point of sale systems on which every single on-board order is recorded. This gives them a stream of analyzable data about consumption quantities for different routes, which they then use to order grocery supplies with the utmost precision.

The team also receives information about demographics and nationalities of passengers a few weeks before each cruise and modifies their shopping lists accordingly – the culinary demands of Brits being rather different to Americans, for example. “The number of baked potatoes has to go up [for British passengers], you need mint sauce instead of mint jelly, English Breakfast tea, English mustard. Indian food will go higher production… We have to adjust to what different nationalities like, what they recognise.”

Menu specials are also designed to reflect the cruise’s ports of call, such as a jerk chicken dish when visiting Jamaica or filo pastries and mezze around Greek islands.

Putting the finishing touches to dessert. Photo by Maggie Jackson

The heartbeat of the operation

Catering a floating resort comes with a host of unique challenges and safety regulations, right down to the design of the galley – food service can’t stop just because you hit stormy seas, after all. The most striking thing about Celebrity Reflection’s round-the-clock kitchens, however, is the scale.

Indian-born Executive Chef Michael Fernandes – who oversees a team of 250 cooks, Chefs and cleaning personnel – led me on a tour around the vessel’s main, two-story kitchen (the specialty restaurants have their own separate facilities) and Alice in the Wonderland-esque I seem to have swallowed a pill that makes everything grow or proliferate to mind-boggling proportions. Stocks and soups simmer in 450-liter vats, hundreds of tomatoes are sliced up for countless Caprese salads, ice-cream is poured into tubs big enough to bathe in (tempting) and traybakes the size of my office desk are being iced at lightning pace. Whether it’s a row of bain maries or flat-iron grills, “dozens” seems to be the smallest quantity that anything comes in here.

Alice in the Wonderland-esque I seem to have swallowed a pill that makes everything grow or proliferate to mind-boggling proportions.

Chefs move station every two months to hone different skills – from reducing sauces to chocolate work to fish filleting, perhaps – with their level of seniority denoted by the color of their neckerchiefs (yellow for the most junior through to black for a sous chef).

Dining around

Past a steamy, industrial-sized dish-washing area, through swinging kitchen doors and we are onto Celebrity Reflection’s main restaurant, Opus. Able to accommodate two sittings of 1,400 people each evening, the focal point of this two-deck-high dining room is the wine tower, a soaring glass and steel structure that holds 1,800 bottles at the perfect serving temperature. It was designed by Adam Tihany, who created the interiors for the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas and the Shangri-la in Singapore. “It’s really something… a million-dollar piece,” enthuses Lazo.

The most expensive wine on board? A bottle of the Screaming Eagle at $4,800, according to Cellar Master Mike Pereira.

The glass wine tower is designed to hold 1,800 bottles.

While Opus serves up classic sophisticated fayre (think salmon roulade, quail, crème brûlée) there are several more intimate specialty restaurants to suit adventurous palates and variety seekers. Qsine is a quirky concept that turns conventional dining on its head – reflected in the topsy-turvy lampshades and the mismatched chairs. Waiters are recast as “culinary tour guides” who help diners navigate an iPad menu based around sharing plates of “palate pleasers”, including sushi lollipops and popcorn fish ‘n’ chips.

Neighboring Blu is a breakfast and dining option exclusively for AquaClass guests (a premium package), offering “clean cuisine” in modern surroundings of blue glass and white rosebuds swirling across the walls. Dishes such as chilled avocado soup, baby spinach salad and guava sorbet certainly seem to challenge the unhealthy reputation of cruise ship food, while the restaurant’s wines are sustainable and biodynamic.

For those really wishing to push the boat out (no pun intended) it sounds like Murano is the place to impress. Lazo describes this opulent French-inspired dining room as “our Michelin-level offer”, where lobster is flambeed in Cognac at your table and followed by an artisanal cheese board and vintage Port.

The flavor tour continues with hearty Italian meals at Tuscan Grille, sashimi and sake at Sushi on Fifth, and a Texan barbecue spread at Lawn Club Grill – getting a hands-on Chef’s lesson in proper grilling techniques in the process.

Cruises may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s certainly no chance of an empty belly or jaded palate on this ship.