The art of the buffet: Cruise chef of two decades explains how ships feed thousands of passengers at sea
Marco Goetz has worked on some of the world's largest cruise ships as an executive chef.
For the past 15 years, he's overseen the culinary operations on several Carnival cruise lines.
He said a missed port or late food shipment can throw a meticulously designed menu into disarray.
The most difficult part of Marco Goetz's 20-plus-year career hasn't been the 14-hour shifts or living at sea for months at a time.
Instead, he says it's been mastering the intricate system that enables 265 galley cooks and stewards to feed 4,700 passengers and crew members every day.
"You are more or less like in the army. And everybody has their stripes," Goetz, who has worked on several Carnival cruise lines over the past 15 years, told Insider.
In 2020, Carnival enlisted Goetz to help solve one of the cruise industry's most dire crises to date: figuring out how to feed thousands of quarantined passengers and crew members onboard the Diamond Princess stranded in Japan, home to what was at the time the largest number of COVID-19 infections outside of mainland China.
The industry veteran traveled from Los Angeles to the port of Yokohama to solicit piecemeal deals from local hotels, as a single restaurant or catering company could not possibly feed all the hungry mouths on board.
The logistical nightmare that followed is an extreme example of how many moving parts make up the massive floating cities, where food is sourced from apartment-sized freezers and container ships instead of grocery stores and farms.
"On land, your daily routines are more organized — you know what is coming," Goetz told Insider. "On the ship, you never know."
The art of the buffet
The corporate executive chef of a cruise ship combines the expertise of a chef with the skills of a business manager to oversee the vessel's entire culinary operation. This can include everything from ingredient orders and cost reductions to menu design and staff training.
It's a position that allows for a birds-eye view of a cruise line's food supply chain, a delicate sequence of operations that a single aberration like a missed port or late shipment can plunge into chaos.
Carnival's Caribbean Princess ship (on which Goetz worked this fall) has seven dining rooms and five specialty restaurants, including an Italian trattoria, steakhouse, and wine bar. Instead of picking up food along the route, cruise ships load up at the origin port on all the food needed for the journey, Goetz told Insider.
Food shipments are then stored inside the cruise ship's massive freezers, an inventory process that Bloomberg's Brandon Presser described as an "art form" in a 2018 feature on Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas.
"Overestimate the order, and the voyage becomes less profitable (and wasteful); underestimate, and you'll risk a riot over coconut shrimp," Presser wrote. "Luckily, passengers' eating habits are fairly predictable. On the average week-long cruise, Royal Caribbean estimates its guests will be 80 percent American, consuming around 3,000 bottles of wine, 7,000 pounds of chicken breast, and almost 100,000 eggs."
Throughout the cruise, buffet options are adjusted in accordance with guests' nationalities, Goetz told Insider. After each meal, galley staff takes note of which food was most and least popular, he added.
"If you have more Germans on the ship, for breakfast they want more sausages, cold cuts, things like that," Goetz explained. "When you have French passengers then it's more baguettes, croissants."
But despite the meticulously calculated menu, every now and then guests will become upset by the fact that the chefs don't have an endless supply of special dishes at their fingertips, Goetz said.
"If they ask for tomato, there's no problem," he told Insider. "But if somebody asks for a Kobe steak or they want something completely special — if we don't carry on board we can't provide it."
In the kitchen, health inspections are top of mind.
Goetz's day typically begins at 6 or 7 a.m. — unless the cruise is docked at an American port.
"If it's an American port, you start at five o'clock or even earlier because you need to be ready for public health," he said.
Health inspections are always top of mind in cruise ship kitchens. Gastrointestinal diseases spread like wildfire — and a chef's worst nightmare is to be blamed for an outbreak.
Executive chefs like Goetz largely dictate their own schedule and can take breaks throughout the day to get off the boat and explore different ports. A hobbyist photographer, Goetz said getting off the ship and taking photos allows him to stay sane below deck.
Cruise ship chefs can make anywhere between $6,000 to $8,500 a month, Goetz said, noting that he typically works eight months out of the year and is not paid for the remaining four.
A corporate executive chef in New York City makes between $124,240 and $157,247 a year, according to salary.com, which divides out to over $10,000 a month. But, cruise ship workers receive living quarters (most chefs have their own cabin) and meals for free.
For rank and file galley staff who regularly work eleven to 14-hour shifts for six months straight, "it's the toughest job you can have," Goetz said.
"It's difficult to give crew full days off but maybe a few more hours or maybe a half a day, just to give them some time to see the world," he told Insider. "Some of the chefs just abuse people and that's something which needs to be changed."
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