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Kitchen Confidential: Behind The Scenes Of The World's Largest Cruise Ship

November 17,2018 01:22

Needless to say, if you have the world's biggest cruise ship, with over 9,000 guests and crew, there are lots of mouths to feed. Recently, Forbes.com was invited aboard Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas as she made her U.S. debut for a ...and more »


Needless to say, if you have the world’s biggest cruise ship, with over 9,000 guests and crew, there are lots of mouths to feed. Forbes.com was invited for a behind-the-scenes kitchen tour aboard Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas as she made her U.S. debut, and while we didn’t have to wash dishes or peel potatoes, we did get an insider’s view of what it takes to fill lots of hungry stomachs.
But to answer the question you are probably asking, while lobster, duck and beef tenderloin are the most popular, potatoes are the top food consumed, over 5,000 pounds every day. And in case you ever get asked to help with the dishes, figure out a way to politely decline. There are over 65,000 plates of food served every day.

Royal Caribbean's Symphony Seas has 365 culinary professionals aboard.Doug Gollan

On Symphony of the Seas, there are three main galleys to serve the 11 complimentary restaurants with each of the 12 specialty restaurants which offer 350 different dishes having their own dedicated kitchens. There are also 50 kids specific options on the various menus. All eateries, however, share one pastry kitchen, where those artistic confectionary centerpieces you’ve admired on your last cruise take up to six months to create. The pastry chefs work on them when they aren’t mixing and baking.

Over 300 tons of food and beverage are loaded for each 7-day voyage of Symphony of the Seas, the world's largest cruise shipDoug Gollan

According to Bruce Venter, Traveling Corporate Executive Chef for Royal Caribbean, the busiest restaurant on Symphony is Windjammer, which serves over 5,000 breakfasts, as many lunches and up to 2,000 dinners. At mealtime, it takes choreography that would make Bob Fosse or Martha Graham proud. While the ship is nearly the length of four football fields with over 6,500 passengers and 18 decks, even in its main restaurants, food is cooked in batches instead of banquet style. Screens at various cooking stations show each time a guest in the dining room places an order so the responsible cooks can see in total how many lobster tails are needed. When a server picks up an order, they scan the ticket on their way back to the dining room reducing the count of what’s needed.

Provisioning Symphony of the Seas includes over 40 different varieties of fruit and 80 kinds of vegetablesDoug Gollan

Royal Caribbean uses decades of data in what Venter calls a combination of “art and science,” the goal to never run out of what you want but still minimize waste. Sometimes new menu items can throw a kink into the system, such as when mozzarella risotto was added and it turned out to be more popular than anticipated. There are also screens that monitor how much energy is being consumed so cooking stations can be opened or shut based on demand. Then there's that thing called weather. Sometimes rain or rough seas necessitate schedule changes to various shows, so even a 30-minute switch has the potential to cause culinary chaos, something Venter says is avoided because “the left hand and right hand are always talking.” In the main dining room, the goal is to get guests in and out in about 90 minutes, but servers are trained to make customers happy, which means to speed things up if they are hurrying to catch a show, or slow things down if it’s a family celebration or romantic dinner date.

Screens provide kitchen staff a by the minute tally of what's been ordered so they can cook in batches to order instead of banquet styleDoug Gollan

Of the 2,200 crew, 365 are part of the culinary team, and they are responsible for feeding both guests and teammates. There are three commissaries just for the crew. Deep in the bowels of Symphony is a corridor that runs the length of the ship known as I-95 after the interstate highway running from Maine to Key West. If you ever get there, look left and right before entering as dollies stacked with boxes of fruit and pushcarts with cases of sparkling water combine with crew racing as if they had just entered the HOV lane.

It can take up to six months to create confectionary centerpiecesDoug Gollan

When Symphony of the Seas returns to its new homeport of Miami after each seven-day cruise, it takes about eight hours to load new supplies. Provisioning plans are sent to each supplier giving them specific times they need to show up at the pier. Chefs are down on the dock opening boxes of goods randomly, tasting strawberries and ripping apart heads of lettuce to make sure everything is fresh. “It keeps our suppliers on their toes,” says Venter.

I-95 is a crew passageway running the length of the ship busy with carts of produce moving from storage areas to the more than dozen kitchens on Symphony of the SeasDoug Gollan

There are over 20 gigantic storerooms, including freezers and refrigerators with temperature double checked every six hours. Each cruise is provisioned with over 300 tons of food and beverage. Royal Caribbean has 25 ships by the way, so food planning has to be done months in advance with menus typically changing with homeports. For example, when a ship sails out of the U.K. the menu will be adjusted to the tastes of the larger proportion of British guests. With customers from around the world, all types of special requests based on diet and religion need to be accommodated. With dozens of nationalities across the various culinary team members, there is probably not a special request that can't be accommodated with advance notice. By the way, each ship carries two extra days of food in case it has to stay at sea longer because of weather. To come up with a new dish takes at least six months of planning because of the scale of serving so many people and how it impacts the supply chain.

Windjammer is the busiest restaurant on Symphony of the Seas serving over 5,000 meals at breakfast and an equal amount at lunchDoug Gollan

You might have guessed that due to safety, which Venter says is the top priority, you can’t have open flames, which means no wood-burning ovens or gas grills. Still, Venter says there is nothing that’s served ashore that the line won’t serve on its ships. As you might expect there is a strong emphasis on the types of cuisines that most folks like, including steaks, Italian, Mexican and so forth, varying by where the ship is based.

There are a dozen specialty restaurants on Symphony of the Seas including Jamie's Italian from celebrity chef Jamie OliverDoug Gollan

On each seven-night cruise, guests dine on 9,700 pounds of chicken, 60,000 eggs, 15,000 pounds of beef, 700 pounds of ice cream (frozen treats for specialty restaurants are made onboard), 2,100 lobster tails, 2,500 pounds of salmon, 5,300 pounds of bacon, 5,000 pounds of fries and more than 2,000 pounds of wings. Over 40 different varieties of fruit and 80 kinds of vegetables are served while nearly 3,200 slices of pizza are consumed every hour. Specialty restaurant Hooked Seafood serves over 2,200 oysters, while bartenders mix 124 specialty cocktails and pour 450 cases of champagne. There are 161 types of candies served at Sugar Beach, and including its own Starbucks, over 1,500 pounds of coffee is used.

Wonderland provides an Alice in Wonderland inspired dining experience for guestsDoug Gollan

In terms of the specialty restaurants, they range from an outpost of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to steak, seafood, Japanese and the fanciful Wonderland, where guests are greeted by the Mad Hatter and dine on Alice in Wonderland themed molecular gastronomy cuisine. Venter says kitchen staff in the specialty restaurants rotate, something that he says is motivational and enables them to expand their culinary skills.

The test of taste. This reporter's filet mignon from the main dining room was delicious.Doug Gollan

So you probably are wondering, how does it taste? The filet mignon and lobster tail I had last night were excellent, the steak in particular as good as I’ve had in any restaurant, and that was in the main dining room. As is usual with many cruises, if you have eyes for more than one main course selection or appetizer, it’s brought to you with a smile, perhaps a good reason there is an expansive state-of-the-art gym and jogging track that circumvents the entire ship.

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