Gastronomy at sea.

At full working capacity Queen Elizabeth sets sail with over 230 kitchen staff preparing more than 12,000 meals a day – a feat of fine dining on an almost military scale.

In light of the Covid-19 situation, the recommendations and activities mentioned in this article are for the purpose of possible future cruise vacations. Please always refer to local government health advisories for travel.

A string quartet plays as white-gloved waiters process into the ballroom bearing teapots, cakes and scones. As the sun sets over the Tasman Sea, servers glide through a black-tie reception offering champagne and foie gras. A bartender caramelizes a cocktail with a blowtorch; a bell jar unleashes billowing clouds of hickory smoke; a pastry chef demonstrates the fine art of working with chocolate to an eager crowd of guests.

Yet below the theatrical elegance of cruise ship dining lies a food and beverage operation on a scale that would put many hotels to shame. Mark Oldroyd, executive chef on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth liner, would usually oversee six restaurants, seven galleys and 234 kitchen staff who, between them, prepare more than 12,000 meals on an ordinary day for about 2,000 guests and 1,000 crew: fine dining dinners, afternoon teas, plus breakfasts, lunches, room service, salads and snacks, not to mention a smorgasbord of meals for both guests and crew.

A submarine empire.

Beyond the blistering steel of the galleys (a team of 68 cleaners ensure pristine surfaces) Oldroyd’s empire extends far below the waterline. Here a maze of storerooms, complete with forklifts, elevators and security cameras, house more than enough supplies for a fortnight’s feasting: more than 70 tons of fresh fruit and vegetables, more than 20 tons of gourmet seafood, sacks upon sacks of herbs and spices, not to mention many thousands of bottles of wine and champagne.

One storeroom is devoted exclusively to local bananas and kept at the perfect temperature for ripening them. “We’ve only got the ripest ones in right now, because we just bought these in Auckland,” Oldroyd explains. “We buy two stages of tomato: we'll get them not as ripe and ripe. We buy ripe and under-ripe avocados, and three stages of bananas: green, yellow and ready to eat.”

Teams of storekeepers, helped by specialist software tailored to the cruise industry, monitor the provisions to ensure they’re served at the peak of ripeness with minimal wastage. “It’s a lot more work than a hotel, because a hotel is not always full, and we are,” Oldroyd says. “And we have to be really organized because when you’re at sea you can’t just pop down the road to get something.”

Dressed for dinner.

Besides the 24-hour Lido buffet, where ever-changing seascapes and landscapes glide serenely past the picture windows, a surprising range of food options come included with the ticket price. The Golden Lion serves up classic British pub fare, from fish and chips in feather-light batter through to Cumberland sausage on glistening mash. A comprehensive room service menu arrives with silver cutlery enfolded in linen napkins; a regularly-changing specialty restaurant serves Italian, Mexican, Indian, Asian or barbecue flavors; silver service is always an option, be it for breakfast, lunch, dinner or high tea.

Delivering not only restaurant-quality cuisine but actual fine dining on this scale is no small feat. In the four main restaurants, sit-down dinners become increasingly luxurious according to the guests’ assigned restaurant which is dependent on their stateroom, a relic of Cunard’s Transatlantic heritage. Guests in Cunard’s “Grills” top tiers will dine on rare breeds including Welsh salt marsh lamb, Gloucester Old Spot pork and beef from Onley Grounds farm, or fresh fish sourced from local suppliers.

Yet even in the Britannia restaurant, Cunard’s entry-level dining experience, dishes span the gamut from steak to lemon sole, from beef Wellington to crab and avocado salad, with lobster a particular favorite. “When we have lobster on the menu, we’ll serve about 900,” Oldroyd notes. On a formal night, when guests dress up in tuxedos and cocktail dresses or evening gowns, the double-height art deco space glistens.

A taste of a new home.

Providing five or six different choices of appetizer, entrée and dessert every evening, including low-calorie and vegetarian options, to 2,000 people does not allow a great deal of room for improvisation, so the menus in the main restaurants and crew galley repeat on a 24-day cycle. Guests enjoy five or six different choices of appetizer, entrée and dessert every evening of those 24 days, but Oldroyd endeavors to offer local flavors alongside classics like rump steak or rack of lamb. In South Africa, guests might be treated to wildebeest, warthog or springbok; in Australia, he might track down Moreton Bay bugs, barramundi, kangaroo or local cheese.

Freshness, naturally, is key. After a trial on one of Queen Elizabeth’s sister ships, Oldroyd plans to grow micro-herbs on board, while he sources local fruits from suppliers in port to ensure maximum variety. “I’ll try and pick up as many seasonal things as I can as I’m going around, particularly fruits,” he explains. “In Hawaii, we got guava, lychees, jackfruit, sharon fruit and durian – which stunk the whole place out. In Polynesia, I got pineapple, mango and banana.”

From the chef’s table.

While much of Oldroyd’s job is logistics and management rather than actually cooking, it’s in the Verandah restaurant, an intimate, “first-class plus” French treat not included with on-board packages, that he gets the chance to shine. On regular evenings, the menu focuses on luxurious ingredients such as foie gras, crab and venison, with soups poured and rack of lamb carved theatrically at the table. But when paperwork permits, Oldroyd arranges a chef’s table, pairing dishes with wines selected by the ship’s chief sommelier.

Cooking demonstrations are another favorite, with the chefs brought out to the ballroom to showcase their skills for the guests, be it fruit and vegetable carving, sushi making or sugarwork. It’s a chance, Oldroyd observes, for his team to earn some overdue appreciation. “Because we’re back of house, they don’t see us all the time,” he says. “So I like to put the chefs out there and show them, ‘This is the team behind the scenes, and this is what we do, and we can teach you different things as well.’”

This article was produced for Cunard by BBC StoryWorks, the commercial content division of BBC Global News.

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