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Running a tight (and safe) floating eatery for 3,850


Jean-Marie Zimmermann runs a tight ship. As executive chef of the Queen Mary 2, the world’s largest ocean liner and one of its highest-volume floating foodservice operations, he has to.

The French-born chef is in charge of an elaborate culinary operation that turns out more than 10,000 meals a day in 15 restaurants, to a captive audience of 2,600 guests and 1,250 officers and crew. He has to keep the food interesting, and constantly maintain a laser focus on food safety.

The Queen Mary 2, operated by Valencia, Calif.-based Cunard Lines, made her maiden voyage in 2004. The ship has been buzzing with culinary activity ever since.

On a recent tour of the largest of eight on-board kitchens--a vast, immaculate expanse of stainless steel, with nary a stray crumb in sight--Zimmermann joked that his biggest fear is running out of food. After all, vacationers typically see cruises as non-stop eating festivals.

But there is scant chance the cupboard will go bare. Zimmerman starts planning, in tandem with two procurement officers, up to three sailings ahead to ensure proper supplies are on board, and that they are ready for loading as the ship stops in ports during world cruises.

The chef, a veteran of hotel and restaurant kitchens, mostly in England, uses a point-of-sale system that allows him to forecast inventory for each lunch and dinner seating. It is connected to all food operations on board. In the main galley, which serves a restaurant called Britannia, the information is displayed on five screens. A quick glance at the numbers allows the chef to change course if he runs out of a particular entrŽe item, such as lobster tails or duck.

During the tour, the screens revealed that patrons downed 860 pounds of lobster the night before. That information helps for future planning. “If anything has run out, I can change the menu for tomorrow,” Zimmermann said.

Typically, cruise company chefs follow menus provided by corporate headquarters. In contrast, Zimmermann said he is “left alone” to create and execute the menu, a fact he treasures. He presides over a staff of 150 chefs who prepared virtually all food on board the day it is served.

The process starts with the provisions crew, 13 staffers who receive the food and deploy it to 21 refrigerated rooms. On a typical six-day transatlantic cruise, this involves 50 tons of fresh produce, 12 tons of meat, 8 tons of poultry and 13 tons of seafood. Provisions also include four tons of flour, two tons of sugar and 32,400 eggs.

For efficiency and to avoid cross contamination, everything is cleaned and prepared before it is brought to a galley, where it is then cooked and assembled just before service.

For preparation, there’s an on-board butchery, with a staff of six meat cutters, as well as a fish room. “Our butchers work constantly, de-boning meat, cutting steaks, working with poultry,” Zimmermann said.

All baked goods are made fresh daily to supply morning croissants and Danish, afternoon and evening bread baskets, treat-laden buffets, and the all-important and popular afternoon tea, a nod to Cunard’s British roots. Two teams of bakers work round the clock.

Bread is baked as close to service as possible. “We don’t want the bread to be cooked at 6 a.m. if it is being served at noon,” Zimmermann said.

With such large quantities of food turned out all day, there have been surprisingly few snafus, even when the seas are rough. “We’ve had only one or two little disasters, with everything going everywhere,” Zimmermann said. “But we cope with that.”

- Louise Kramer

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