The Importance of Good Food On-Board Ships

There must be millions of recipes on-line, and in recipe books but for all this culinary knowledge out there, there is very little specifically associated to subject of Maritime Catering Operations, and whilst dishes prepared on-board a ships maybe similar to dishes found anywhere else, preparing food in a marine environment is very different, and can offer some challenges to the Ships Cook that are not experienced in a land based catering environment.

Above we see some typical Galley’s on;- a Dive Support Vessel, a Ferry, a Dredger and a Supply Boat

A ship can move to anywhere on the globe, this means you may be taking food provisions not just in different ports, but maybe different countries, which may mean different products and brands, you may also be purchasing in different currencies. Things like fish and fresh produce can vary considerably as you move around the world.

Apart from a ship moving location a ship in can pitch and role in some weather conditions, this means the catering crew must “take all good seamen like precautions” and secure everything including securing pots and pans on the stove, as in bad weather unsecured items will move and create a hazard to those working in the Galley.

And of course the food on-board a ship is prepared in a Galley, the word Galley means a kitchen in a moving object such as  Ships, Trains and Aircraft the term is also used for land based naval kitchens.

Views from a galley porthole..

Let’s raise a question;-

“How many ships are there in the world”?

Well the truth is it is hard to say, as when we researched this, although there are various lists complied there does not seem to be any definitive list or register of every vessel in the world that we could find, however as far as we can tell from the brief research we have done estimates would indicate there are over 100,000 vessels worldwide, (but our research on this can’t be verified) but let’s assume we’re correct?

I raise this point because it stands to reason that it is certain that every single one of those ships has a galley, which would lead to the obvious conclusion that there will be at least one cook onboard, and when you consider a cruise ship might have over 100 cooks onboard, this amounts to a huge number of cooks working at sea, and yet despite the fact that there are most likely well over 100,000 ship cooks out there sailing the world’s oceans, books about cooking onboard ship and managing a catering operation on-board ship, seem rare, apart from some very old historical books, there are some recipes books for sailing yachts and a few books with samples of cruise ship recipes.

Captive Customers

Food, and more to the point “Good Food” is vitally important on a ship because unlike most other the careers the staff, who from this point on will be referred to as “The Ship’s Crew”, don’t get to eat at home every day like most people, the crew have no choice as to where they can eat, they are captive when at sea and can be away for months as a time, so nutrition and well-being during a voyage is a primary concern.

There are some pretty romantic notions amongst the general public regarding life at sea most of which is often generated by movies, books and historical information which by enlarge is either fictitious, romanticized or no longer true for the modern seafarer.

The modern seafarer for the most part lives in a clean comfortable air conditioned environment with TV, internet, comfortable cabins, as well as gyms and games consoles for those off duty hours, so what was once perceived as a hard life is less so these days, and certainly the food at sea is most likely better now than at any previous point in history. Having said that, whilst there are international rules governing the conditions onboard ship for seafarers.

Crew Expectations

There are also many excellent and talented ships cooks out there, and there has to be, because the modern day seafarer has a high expectations, but equally I have to say sometimes I will get people onboard who tell me of previous poor food experiences they have had on other ships, I find this both bemusing and unnecessary that crews should have such bad experiences as in the bigger scheme of shipping costs food cost is a relatively cheap cost centre.

I remember speaking to a highly respected shipping owner many years ago, about the high cost of provisions for a voyage were where about to undertake, and his response surprised me and has stayed with me ever since, he said;-

  • “You never tell me about the cost of food provisions being high, it is all relevant when you look at the overall costs involved with operating a ship, to put it in perspective a piece of machinery in the engine room might fail or need a spare part, within a couple of hours we may discover we need new machinery pats that could cost £5,000, £10.000 or £20,000. That money, that expense gone lost with what seems like very little to show for it. But if your spend £10,000 of food provisions those provisions will feed the crew and clients for weeks”..! And when we have clients onboard the per-man per-day rate we charge can generate income…!

And he went further;-

  • “When I was at sea (he said) I had some experiences of poor food and I could never understand why? As I have built up my company I have made sure the everyone onboard is able to enjoy good food, the health and welfare of the crew is paramount, no one should have to endure poor food on one of our ships”.

His approach was a well-considered one based on experience and understanding and very easy to understand and agree with.
So there is an important lesson that should be recognized by not just to other ships cooks like myself but also to other crew members and shipping owners, operators and managers and also ships suppliers.

As marine caterers we need to promote craft skills and professional pride within the industry, upholding high standards of food, embracing good food hygiene and safety.

The Messroom

The Messroom is a focal point on the vessel where all the crew go to eat several times a day. The ships messroom should be a place, where the crew have time to socialize whilst eating an enjoyable meal or snack in a clean pleasant environment. The food onboard a ship has the primary role of ensuring good nutrition and well being, but  there is also a  secondary benefit, the psychological effect which can promote mental well being, reduce stress, promote camaraderie, a happy well fed crew will have a very positive affect the safe efficient running of the ship.

To elaborate this point a little more clearly: No matter where people work on land or sea, in an office, a shop or a factory no matter what your job role is, we can all have good days and bad days in the workplace.

Most people at the end of the working day get to go home and leave the problems of the day behind them. Onboard ship the crew don’t have that physical escape from the workplace, so as the ships cook you have a very important role to play.
In recent years a number of studies have indicated that people are increasingly unhappy in the workplace, work and stress in the workplace affects most people at some time or another and some people can spend years being unhappy in their job.
Imagine that a crew member is having a day, the last thing anyone having a bad day needs is to go for lunch or dinner and find the catering staff are disinterested and the food is unappealing and poor and no one cares, it would just add the feeling distress and unhappiness and that could cause people to make mistakes. This is why the Ships Catering crew and how they run the department is vital to operational performance and productivity.

Hospitality

I train my catering crews from the start that we have one single function onboard and that is to show hospitality, with all that, that entails. That means good food, a clean cabin, accommodation and messroom and friendly helpful catering crew. So no matter how someone’s day is going, when they come into the messroom, all the problems are left at the messroom door, and the crew can be sure that there is a selection of nice well prepared food to eat with friendly helpful catering crew behind the counter. Crew can sit, chat and have a good meal and leave the messroom refreshed “happy” and in a “positive mood” ready to return to work or go and rest in between shifts.

It has always been my firm belief that the contribution the catering department onboard has is significant and contributes to the safe and efficient running of a ship, This contribution is to some degree subliminal and often overlooked. It has been well documented since the 1940’s, think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which has been part of the foundation of modern management thinking for decades.

My simplistic way of articulating Maslow complex theory and how it is relevant to ships catering operations and ships cooks

  • Human beings basic needs in order to achieve anything in life, they must have the very basic things needed for survival, such as air water food and shelter, these for some of the physiological needs, only once these needs are satisfied can people go on to lead productive lives.

One thing I have leant and come to understand and believe from my personal experience is how important good food is onboard ship to the general well being of the crew, both physically and psychologically, this in turn leads to the efficient and safe running of the vessel.

There is no one size fits all approach to how things are done on ships regarding the catering operations on ships due to diverse nature of the shipping industry, from the smallest of ships to the largest ocean going passenger liners and everything in-between,  one thing they all have in common is the people on-board all have to be fed and have suitable accommodation.

We here at The Ships Cook Book hope to contribute to the understanding and development of Hospitality on-board ships.