A typical cruise ship kitchen. (Photo: Oceania Cruises)
Ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes in a cruise ship kitchen? How the staff keeps hungry passengers satisfied on a long sailing? We caught up with executive chef Jörg Becker aboard Oceania Cruises’ Nautica en route from Tokyo to Hong Kong. It was a full sailing, which meant that Becker had plenty of mouths to feed each day, between breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner.
Here, he talks about what it’s like to work on a ship — the good, the bad, and the very unappetizing.
Jörg Becker, executive chef on Oceania Cruises’ Nautica. (Photo: Jörg Becker)
It’s hard to be away at sea.
My least favorite thing about my job is being away from my family. Three years ago, I became a dad. I took a year and a half off to focus on diapers and formula. On ships, you get two months a year of vacation, which gives you some quality time. But for the majority of the year you are separated from your family. The usual operational challenges I can deal with — but compared to being away from loved ones for a long time, it’s minor.
Working on a cruise ship is an addiction.
I started in the hotel industry when I was 18. In the hotel industry, you’re like a tramp, everybody is moving. I started working on ships when I was 30. I have taken some breaks, but it is an addiction. You get around; the people you work with have the same craziness.
But I’d never take my own family on vacation on a cruise.
No, never. Anything but cruising, if you spend the majority of your time on a ship to make your living. I don’t even like to see open kitchens. If I go to a restaurant and they have one, I face the other way. I like little resorts where the beach is 10 meters from the hut and I can have peace and quiet. No noise, no big crowds.
Oceania Cruises’ Nautica. (Photo: Oceania Cruises)
Most cruisers eat too much.
The food is the main entertainment on a sea day. We don’t do rock climbing walls or in-line ice skating. We do food. It is a vital part of the product. Food is the entertainment here. When you don’t know what to do on a sea day, you go to tea time. If it isn’t tea time, you get a cookie. Some people go to the buffet and then the dining room, or the dining room and then the buffet. If we had a midnight buffet, you would see people eating then, too.
Dining in Nautica’s Toscana restaurant. (Photo: Oceania Cruises)
I have to sample everything you eat — everything.
At 5:30 p.m., I taste everything that’s being served for dinner, including the cold app, soup, salad, main courses, vegetarian, plus the pastries. If you’re in the industry, you can’t have the approach of a three-year-old child: “I don’t like spinach.” I will eat anything, literally, at least once.
There is no experimenting on a cruise ship.
That only exists in cooking shows on TV. In my understanding, these TV chefs are reinventing the wheel all day because some producer is telling them to. But they don’t study the history books. I wouldn’t call it creative to mingle different cuisines together. If I create something stupid, I don’t call it fusion, I call it confusion. It is disrespecting the culinary heritage. I don’t mix things that don’t belong together.
You won’t see this in a cruise ship kitchen. (Photo: Gabriel (Gabi) Bucataru/Stocksy)
Some kitchen equipment is off limits.
Fire is a hazard, so you can’t use anything with an open flame — no gas, no barbecue with open fire. Instead, everything is electrical, and that is a limitation. I like to eat pizza. At home, I go to a place on a weekly basis with a wood-fired stone pizza oven. We can’t do that here.
The biggest challenge of my job is to plan ahead.
You cannot store a berry forever, so you plan accordingly. When you cruise out of Miami, you have everything available 12 months a year. If you are in Asia, South America, or Iceland…well, Iceland doesn’t produce so many strawberries. So the logistics are challenging. We plan three months ahead.
There’s nothing like a beer for a cruise ship chef. (Photo: Warren Goldswain/Stocksy)
When I have down time, I don’t care about sightseeing.
When you are young you like to see ports; now I like to have a nap. Part of a chef’s routine is to have a beer or two, and then go to sleep. It is not romantic; it is a job. I am getting off in Hong Kong because we are docked next to a shopping mall and it is the only place in Asia where they sell shoes in my size.
I don’t eat the cruise ship food when I’m in port.
Personally, I am a very daring person. I like street food. I wouldn’t go anywhere where people don’t look like locals. That’s the real food. If you go to India and you only see white people in the restaurant, then you’re in the wrong place.
Eating in Vietnam. (Photo: PhotoAlto/Isabelle Rozenbaum/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)
I try to help passengers be more daring, too.
When the ship arrives in Vietnam, I’ll walk the passengers through the local cuisine before they disembark. I think people appreciate insider talks. As it amuses me when I see guests in my favorite restaurant in Vietnam taking 30 minutes to look at the menu because they don’t know the dishes, I want to spare them that experience. I give a little background and maybe they will be more daring. All I do is open the door and let them decide if they will walk through.
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