If you were to ask passengers why they like to cruise, fine dining and cuisine would be at or near the top of the list. And no wonder! With Lido Deck markets, a top of the line Dining Room, and specialty gourmet restaurants, I don’t think there’s a vacation option that offers better cuisine all in one place. For that reason, I wanted to know what happens behind-the-scenes of dining on a cruise ship. Join me for a Holland America Executive Chef interview…
Author’s note: Holland America Line provided a complimentary cruise for P&P to be able to share cruise experiences with our readers. The following interview was not subject to review by Holland America.
Meet Holland America Executive Chef Owen de Souza
Chef Owen de Souza was gracious enough to make time for an interview. The cruise director, Jayme McDaniel, also hosted Chef Owen for a ‘Coffee Chat’. So between the coffee chat and my interview with Chef Owen, I learned so much about what it takes to plan all the dining on a cruise.
Chef Owen was born in Goa, India. His wife is from the Philippines. (He met her on a ship when she was working as a pastry chef!) They have two children, a 7-year old daughter and 4-year-old son.
Chef Owen’s training began in culinary school in Goa. His first position was on an Israeli casino ship for three years. He then worked for the Spanish cruise line Pullmantur for four years. Part of that time he was assigned to a ship that served the French market. He learned a lot from the French chef he worked with.
Chef Owen says, “After that I moved to Holland America in 2010. I joined as sous chef on the Nieuw Amsterdam. It was a beautiful ship. And then I got promoted to executive chef in 2013 and ever since then I’ve been through most of the classes of the ships, with the exception of the ‘R’ class.”
So you’re not assigned to just one ship?
Chef Owen: “That’s true. They make changes from time to time. And it helps in growing; it helps to see the different ways things are done on each ship. This ship (the Koningsdam) has a kitchen in the Lido Market, for example – a full-fledged kitchen. As opposed to a smaller ship where we don’t have that, because of the way it was built.”
Is there more than one kitchen on a ship?
Chef Owen: “Every restaurant has its own kitchen, (or galley). I have a kitchen on Deck 10, and the team dining room has a kitchen also.”
Do you have any say as to what’s on the menu?
Chef Owen: “The menus are determined by a panel of chefs at Holland America Headquarters. It is structured for several reasons: keeping consistency in the operation, training purposes, and for provisioning and the need to use approved suppliers in a US port. It helps us be consistent with quality across the fleet.”
Do you ever cook or prepare food on the ship?
Chef Owen: “Yes, of course, whenever we do trainings and whenever we have implementations, or new menus. That’s when we need to get involved and get our crew trained, and show them what is expected. And then, I also cook at home!”
So, is your work mostly administrative?
Chef Owen: “Well, it’s more about planning, in terms of ordering for the menus, budgeting, and making sure our inventories are inline and not through the roof. Because there’s just only so much room to store everything. We have to make sure that we have enough and at the same time, that we don’t have too much. Any more and you probably lose it to spoilage. There’s a lot to do in terms of planning. At the end of the day, you can’t run out of supplies mid-cruise. You can try and buy locally in the ports that you visit, but then again, you’re not always guaranteed the quality you need to keep Holland America standards.”
What does a typical day look like for you?
Chef Owen: “Well it’s an early morning. We wake up and make our rounds around the opening of the Lido. Then I check my emails and have a production meeting with Chef Avatis. I put it out there to see if there are any challenges for the day, if our operations are going the way we planned. Two days before they actually order for the day, I give the teams a production sheet, a kind of count as to how much we should be preparing. That is done prior to our meeting.
Once they come to the meeting, we discuss whether there is a discrepancy or they cannot produce something, or they have it ready (which is most of the time). There are very few times when there are issues, especially just after loading the ship. But if they couldn’t find something or something didn’t make it onboard, that’s when we make last-minute changes if we have to. We try to stay away from that as much as possible. But this planning in advance does help us.
After the meeting is done, I go to check the line for the main dining room breakfast. I look into the working hours of the crew and also what has to be done for the next day. Then comes lunch. I do a tasting for lunch; then we check the setup for lunch in the main dining room, the Lido, and the team dining room. At about 1:30 pm, I take a short break for about 2 hours.
After my break, I do the approvals for all the requisitions the cooks put in for the following days. Then I go on to another tasting – this time for dinner. I do the tastings for the dining room plus one of the specialty restaurants per night. They open up at 5:00 pm, so it has to be quick! Next we check the setup for the rest of the restaurants and the Lido Market and then down to the team dining room. It’s a lot of tastings I’ve got to do.”
So you don’t really GET TO eat a real meal?
Chef Owen: “It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down and eaten an entire meal. The last one was actually when I was at home. When you taste so much (there’s so much that I have to taste), I really don’t have time to sit down and eat. And I’m full! The walking all over the ship helps–I can tell you that!”
What do you do during down time? (Do you get any?)
Chef Owen: “Yes, in the evenings after I finish the rounds after dinner…about half-past 9:00. I call home and I talk to the kids. That’s a typical day – day after day.”
How do you avoid food waste on a cruise ship?
Chef Owen: “We know how much to produce depending on the number of guests and that helps us reduce food waste. Plus our food waste has reduced significantly because guests no longer serve themselves due to health and safety protocols. Our kitchens are designed to be able to cook to order so we won’t go back to self-serve.
Leftover foods are separated into hard and soft foods. Soft foods are put through a bio-digester and liquified/purified — sometimes referred to as ‘fish smoothies’ because we can dispose of this into the ocean. Hard food is compacted and taken on land when we are in ports.”
Do you get off the ship on a port day?
Chef Owen: “On a port day, if we’re not open for lunch, that’s when I actually go off the ship. I choose which port I want to get off the ship for. I’ll go to a place where I can taste something local. And how I do it, I walk around and look for a local tavern or anything that would keep my interest. I just sit down and order from whatever they have to offer.”
How often do you see your family?
Chef Owen: As a Holland America Executive Chef “I usually work two four-month contracts with Holland America…and I typically get two months off after that. While on contract, I call my family twice a day — and occasionally I’m able to bring my family onboard.”
Why work a cruise ship instead of a restaurant?
Chef Owen: “(That’s something I don’t want to let everybody in on because they might want to do the same!) Actually, the biggest advantage of this job for me right now is…I know I am away from home for four months, but the two months I get at home, I can spend completely with my family. I have nothing else planned. In the line of work I’m in, if I was working in a restaurant or if I had a restaurant of my own back home, it would need my complete attention. Even though I’d be home, I wouldn’t be home. Because restaurant work is 24/7. So that’s why I like doing this for now. I mean, at least till the kids grow up.”
What is it like to be in culinary school?
Chef Own: “Culinary school really doesn’t give you the full idea of what it’s like in the real world, or even in a hotel. But it’s really important because it teaches you the basics. They are stressed so much and you ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this?’ But when you go out into the real world, to a hotel, or to a ship, that’s when the small little tidbits come into play. And that’s what makes the difference. When you’re in culinary school, you feel like this is totally not worth it, but you actually learn later on that it really helps.”
Any interesting food-related stories?
Chef Owen: “Once a cruise left an hour and a half late because the ice cream and frozen chicken hadn’t been delivered. The truck carrying the frozen items was so heavily laden it got pulled over. They had to wait for another truck to come and take some of the load before they could deliver to the cruise ship. The Captain even announced to the passengers that they wouldn’t be leaving till the ice cream was delivered! We also had to pay port fines for not leaving on time.”
Just how much food is used on a one-week cruise?
Chef Owen: “We use a lot of rice (400 lbs. a day). And chicken, eggs, and beef — about 7 to 8 cases a day!”
Highlight of being a Holland America Executive Chef?
Chef Owen: “The most fulfilling part is the happiness of our guests, and the satisfaction of our team. It’s great when team members want to come back and work with me!”
There is SO much to think about to provide a seamless and delicious dining experience for passengers on a Holland America cruise. From menu planning, to provisioning, to training, to scheduling and organizing, if just one thing goes wrong, it affects everything else! Kudos to Holland America Executive Chef Owen de Souza for making my cruise dining experience superb in every way!
I’d love it if you left a comment below — what did you learn that you didn’t know before?