Fine dining rules the waves
DESTROYING the works of art on each plate by taking that first mouthful seemed criminal.
But the unusual mix of aromas around the table began caressing my nostrils, begging me to vandalise the dishes with gay abandon.
I had "starved" myself since lunch in anticipation of this dining event, and now my tummy was demanding full satisfaction, growling audibly in annoyance.
I was determined to prolong the agony, however, by doing a circle of the table to photograph the various meal choices of my 10 dinner companions in Queen Mary2's signature Todd English Restaurant.
Renowned celebrity chef Todd English has restaurants in many US cities as well as on board the QM2 where his speciality dishes such as pumpkin puree or truffled potato love letters and porterhouse of lamb reign supreme.
The restaurant is the ultimate in onboard dining and is run by its own chef de cuisine.
But it is only one of 10 restaurants and cafes on the world's most famous ocean liner that are the ultimate responsibility of executive chef Karl Winkler and executive sous chef Steven Peter Schaap.
With the high expectations of 2600 passengers and about 1200 crew on you, the sheer numbers take the challenge of being in charge of galley and dining operations to a whole new level.
As the grandest, most famous ship afloat, though, QM2 also is expected to present an amazing foodie experience with unparalleled standards in service, excellent quality and freshness, and an extensive repertoire of dishes including regional favourites in ports visited.
Being the longest, tallest and widest ocean liner today counts for nothing if your meal is cold when it arrives in front of you, or if that side order of smoked salmon with your eggs Benedict doesn't materialise.
No matter whether you've ordered grilled sirloin steak with maitre d'hotel butter and port wine jus in Brittania Restaurant, are trying the tasting menu with Peking-style duck breast with wok-fried spiced mango and glass noodles and sweet and sour shrimps in Lotus restaurant, or grabbing an eight-minute pepperoni pizza from the Chef's Galley, each must be perfection on a plate.
And let's not forget that these restaurants are moving on a sometimes fierce ocean. If the weather breaches the Force 8 conditions (5m swell, 80-100kmh winds) the galleys were designed for (as it can reach on trans-Atlantic voyages), being the strongest and most comfortable floating hotel will still force galley staff to take simple preventative measures such as placing a collar on pots to stop splashes.
Just look at the phenomenal task by the numbers:
The culinary brigade consists of 160 chefs and cooks, 80-85 galley utilities (dishwashers, potwashers and galley cleaners working around the clock), a sanitation officer and his assistant. Add to that about 70 waiters and another 72 assistants, aided in their task by indoor escalators.
About 16,000 meals are eaten on board daily.
The galley operations runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
10 restaurants and cafes are onboard, including the Queens and Princess Grills restaurants for passengers in two exclusive accommodation levels, and the 478-seat informal King's Court buffet for breakfast and lunch, which transforms at night into La Piazza (Italian), Lotus (Asian), The Carvery (British) and the Chef's Galley (demonstration kitchen)
More than 1200 a la carte meals are served each sitting (two sittings a night) in the main Brittania Restaurant, the largest restaurant onboard with one of the biggest galleys at sea.
As the first sitting in Brittania is 6pm, the last main courses need to go out to diners by just after 7pm to allow for dessert, coffee and chat before the restaurant closes for an hour turnaround to prepare for the late sitting at 8.30pm.
Menu cycles can last up to 30 days, with the dishes changing every day, to ensure variety on each leg of a voyage.
A mid-morning tour behind the scenes to the main production area of the Brittania galley (with its mirror-image pastry and cold larder sections), the 345m-long "Burma Road" for transporting stores, and the very powerful fridges and huge storerooms on lower decks all offer an insight into the massive, hi-tech operation.
The first things you notice are the stainless-steel walls and ceiling which combine with quarry tiles on the floors to ensure all surfaces can be cleaned quickly, easily and hygienically.
Without dozens of waiters buzzing around at this time of the morning, the galley seems quite spacious, yet it is obvious each preparation area is compact, neat (a place for everything and everything in its place) and logically arranged for optimum efficiency.
At one point, our executive sous chef shows us one of the Combitherm ovens - a multi-use oven and steamer able to take 20 trays and cook, for example, 400 chickens at once.
With such a huge undertaking, galley staff could be forgiven for taking shortcuts.
But executive sous chef Steven Peter Schaap assures us that with the exception of bagels, and special English muffin batter - both of which US and British customers are very particular about - everything is made onboard.
"We still have the old-fashioned way of doing everything fresh," he said.
"Other cruise lines might buy in a bit of their product. Everything here is made from scratch."
Steven said the moment an order was taken by hand, it was put into a computer and then appeared on a large plasma TV screen in the galley so all staff could keep an eye on what was being ordered, how many of each dish was needed and if steps had to be taken to prepare more than anticipated.
Then there's the Queens Grill diners, who could order virtually what they wanted within reason. If, on a whim, they longed for pheasant (a few were usually carried each voyage), and a chef was available to prepare the delicate, low-fat game bird, the wish would be granted, Steven said.
Steven, who joined the Cunard line only a year ago, has an impressive international resume that also features stints on Royal Caribbean and Silver Seas liners, at Movie World on the Gold Coast and Fox Studios in Sydney, and in the kitchens of some of Queensland's best-loved holiday islands such as Fraser, Great Keppel, Magnetic and Dunk.
He said the executive chef and executive sous chef were a partnership in the culinary brigade on board QM2.
"It's like a marriage and yes, we do have arguments but that's very rare," he said.
Steven has obvious admiration for his affable, Austrian-born boss, whom he only knew by reputation before they joined forces.
Karl, who will retire later this year, has 39 years' experience with Cunard, but perfected his culinary skills in Europe, New York and London's famous Ritz and Bristol Hotel.
He told our media group the most challenging exercise of his career had presented itself in 2003 as executive chef of the start-up team to develop a menu for the then-new Queen Mary 2 when "the company tried to create something unique".
Steven said "old Cunardians" - those who had sailed many times on Cunard's ocean liners including QM2, Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth and the former QE2 - avoided the buffet because they preferred the smaller portions of a la carte dining: "That's the Cunard experience."
Despite all the menu choices, Steven's favourite dish remains "proper" apple crumble.
- About 16,000 meals are eaten on board daily.
- Annual tea consumption on QM2 would fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. About 6000 cups of tea are served daily.
- About 87,000 pieces of china and glassware are used in the dining areas and need to be washed daily.
- More than 8000 linen napkins are used and washed daily.
- The corks are popped on nearly 350 bottles of champagne daily.
- Each day about 460 eggs and 1200 litres of milk are consumed.
- About 700 English scones are served during afternoon tea in the Queens Room and Queens Grill Lounge daily.
- 9500 canapes are eaten during the Captain's cocktail parties, with about 5000 on a normal day at sea.
- Passengers consume about 1000 croissants daily.
- 120 pizzas are eaten daily.
- Although the Queen Mary 2's crew hail from 50 different countries, English is the only language spoken in the kitchen.
CHOCOLATE FALLEN CAKE
- 285 g melted dark chocolate
- 290 g melted butter
- 6 eggs
- 260 gsugar
- 180 gcake flour
- 130 g egg yolk
1. Melt butter and chocolate together.
2. Whip the sugar, egg yolk and whole egg until double in a mixer.
3. Add melted chocolate and mix.
4. Add the flour and fold on to the mixture until smooth.
5. Put the mix in a lined mould and bake at 175C for 12 to 14 minutes.
- 6 pieces apple
- 4 tbsp apple sauce
- 1pieces lemon zest
- Vanilla essence
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 325g butter
- 200g sugar
- 500g flour
Peel and cut the apple. Half-cook all the ingredients in a pan, and then put in the ramekin. Place crumble on top of the apple mixture and bake until light brown.
1. Beat the butter and sugar, and then add flour.
2. Mix slowly until it forms crumble.