Stainless Oasis

This entry is part 16 of 20 in the series Cruising with Teens

Kris and I finished packing up and headed topside for some reckless UV exposure.

“Want to try the pool?” Kris asked.

“We can try, but I think it’ll be mobbed,” I answered.

Sure enough, a human or a pile of human belongings occupied every lounge, so we scratched the pool idea and headed up to our spot on the forward sunning deck.

The day looked a little foreboding. Both the sea and the sky were predominantly gray, the wind was howling, and the sea was as rough as we’d seen on any cruise – 9-12 feet according to the captain. From the twelfth deck the waves looked like little ripples, though the horizon rose and fell to a striking degree.

We claimed a pair of lounges, tucked in behind the glass screen where the wind was loudly heard but barely felt. Despite the abundance of clouds, the sun somehow managed to illuminate the deck most of the time. Kris read for a little while, but I noticed her head occasionally tilt forward and then snap back in a start. It wasn’t long before she was asleep with a contented look on her face. The wind did a nice job of disguising her occasional snores.

I worked on the previous Sunday’s newspaper and listened to my MP3 player, set to random play. As if to remind me that the cruise was nearing an end, Bing Crosby launched into Let it Snow. I listened for a minute before hitting the ‘next’ button. We’d be back in the snowbound land soon enough. The atmosphere on the sundeck was decidedly subdued. I guessed that most people were having the same thoughts as I was.

Fewer people made their way to the topless deck on this day. I had previously categorized the visitors who made their way up the stairs to the discreetly hidden area: the Blunderers, the Peepers, the Newbies, the Pros and the Notinteresteds (see chapter 37 for a full refresher). I thought the categories pretty well covered it until I spotted Wells and Dan as they came around the corner and eyed the sign proclaiming the purpose of deck 13.

“Sharks,” I immediately thought. Before they could confirm the new category, Dan saw me and abruptly changed course. Wells got the hint and followed.

“Hey Chestah!” said Dan.

Kris’s eyes fluttered open. “Hey guys. What’s up?”

“Nothin’. We’re just chillin.”

“Nothing like a sea day for that,” I replied, reclaiming a spot in the exchange.

“Yeah, this is pret-ty cool,” Wells said, scanning the open waters. “I can take this.”

“How come you’re way up here?” asked Dan.

“Because there’s no room at the pool,” said Kris.

“Sure there is. We didn’t have any problem.”

We decided to give the pool another try. As we packed up, the boys recognized an opportunity to extricate themselves and quietly disappeared – no doubt anxious to return when the coast was clear for another shot at the enticement of deck 13.

“I think I’d like a Pina Colada,” said Kris.

“But you just got up,” I said. “Maybe you should have a Bloody Mary.”

We walked all around the pool deck before finding two empty lounges. They were on opposite sides of the main aisle, one in the sun and the other partially shaded by the deck above. I opted for the cooler chair. We ordered up a pair of Coladas, and resumed relaxing.

Behind me a long row of people lay on lounges in front of the open windows. Every one of them was sound asleep, many covered under a layer of pool towels. Few things are more humorous than the expressions people wear when they are ‘out of it’. Chin-to-chest, open-mouthed, tongues hanging out, every muscle looking totally relaxed — as though their faces could simply slide off the bones beneath at any moment. Occasionally, someone would snort loudly and shift a little. I didn’t look closely enough to be sure, but I’d bet some were even drooling. That’s why I make it a point to stay awake in public places.

Next to Kris was a mother-daughter pair. The daughter appeared to be in her early-mid teens, going on twenty-five. Her mother kept trying to engage her in small talk, and the girl would roll her eyes in exasperation. Finally mom reclined her chair, turned over onto her frontside and closed her eyes. The teen looked around nervously for a while, and then stealthily opened her mother’s pocketbook. She withdrew a cigarette and lit it, blowing the smoke straight up into the wind. Between furtive puffs she hid the cigarette behind her back, keeping a close eye on mom.

I was just about to look over my shoulder to survey the snoozers again when the girl’s mother started to turn onto her back. In one amazing motion, the girl sprang from her chair, crossed the aisle through heavy traffic, leapt over my chair and disappeared into the crowd. It happened so fast that I didn’t so much see the girl as feel the vortex of her wake. Mom completed her turn, looked at her daughter’s empty chair, and closed her eyes. Ah, youth…

We lingered at the pool until hunger became unbearable. The café was featuring Mexican food on this day. It was amusing to see such a wide range of nationalities dressed in sombreros. The chapeau worn by the Asian man preparing my quesadia was particularly big and floppy, and he struggled to keep it from falling into the pan.

I’m a sucker for Mexican food, so I enjoyed every morsel. Kris isn’t a big fan. When I make tacos at home, the boys will eat five or six of them apiece and I always have at least four. Kris has one, which is always left partially eaten. I felt for her on this day, but she did manage to find enough to fend off starvation.

Clearly it was to be my day for culinary fulfillment. Next up was the galley tour, which promised to be one of the biggest thrills of my lifetime. This may be indicative of something that should be treated with professional counseling, but I’m comfortable with it. Food is good, and cooking is a nice balance of art and science. Eating ain’t so bad either…

We were supposed to meet the social hostess in the lobby at 3:30 for the tour, so there was time after lunch to linger in the cabin for a while. I played with the big screen TV, examined the contents of every cupboard, and used an 8.5×11” sheet of paper as a ruler to measure the suite (results in chapter 38).

At the appointed time, we descended the luminescent stairway to the Grand Foyer. A handful of people were milling about, and Winnie was talking to an older couple who looked strikingly like the Howells from Gilligan’s island. He was dressed in a brass-buttoned navy blue jacket with a white ascot tied at this neck, a little nautical cap of some sort, a boutonniere and white shoes that must have been bleached. The woman’s outfit would have made her overdressed for a formal dinner – never mind a tour of the galley.

At the other end of the sartorial spectrum, some people had obviously just come from poolside and wore clothing best suited to Saturday chores around the house. One man wore a paint-speckled shirt and matching gym shorts. His flip-flops smacked like little firecrackers as he walked about. Kris and I were decidedly casual, but neat.

In all, about a dozen people hovered about – a nice manageable tour size. We sat on a ledge and waited for something to happen. I repeatedly checked the settings and battery levels on the digital and video cameras, and verified for the tenth time that our invitation was safely stowed in my pocket, ready to present to whatever security forces controlled entry to the kitchen.

Tour time came and went with nary a word, and I began to wonder if we’d somehow missed it.

“Where’s Winnie?”

Kris looked around. “I don’t know. The Howell’s are still here. Are you sure this is the right day?”

“Of course I’m sure.” When Kris turned away, I slipped the invitation from my pocket and read it, just to be extra sure.

“Ah, here we go,” said Kris.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a blur of white moving in from somewhere aft – a man in full chef’s regalia. My first thought was “Pillsbury”. The man had a bright cherubic face, and he exuded energy. At his heels was the missing Winnie, who spoke. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to introduce the head chef, Mr. ?” I’m afraid that I cannot recall his last name at this late date, but we came to know him as Frederick.

Suddenly, people materialized from all directions. In no time, at least thirty had gathered in a tight knot around the chef. By the time we got up from our perch and traversed the twenty feet to the gathering, we were on the outer fringes of a large group and straining to hear the introduction. I figured that a number of people who just happened to be in the area had spontaneously joined the tour, and hoped things would thin out a bit when ‘credentials’ were checked. I kept one hand in my pocket on top of the invitation, lest anyone try to pilfer it.

Frederick spoke loudly, but his French accent was so thick that very little of what he said was understandable – to me at least. When I saw him pointing toward the entrance to the Olympic, I hatched a strategy and nudged Kris in that direction. The timing was perfect. Just as we reached the far side of the group, the patrons parted to allow the chef an exit. He strode purposefully by me and I fell into step right behind him. Tres bien. The rest of the crowd stretched out behind us as we marched into the Olympic Restaurant and beyond.

We reached the rear of the restaurant and Frederick paused to let the stragglers catch up. There seemed to be even more people now. No one had challenged me for an invitation, though I remained at the ready.

The chef pushed open a swinging door and we squeezed into a small kitchen area, no bigger than my own back home. Every surface was piled high with gleaming silver service ware, ready for tonight’s dinner in the Olympic.

“Zees ees ze purreparation aria for zee Oleempic restaurant,” he began. “Eet ees zeparate from zee main keetchen.”

I was busy messing with the video camera when the tour continued through another door into the main galley. As far as the eye could see, stainless steel surfaces spread out, up and down. A stainless oasis.

We marched aft, passing a long row of stainless cabinets with see-through glass-doors. We paused by a preparation area for some enlightenment about our surroundings. This apparently was the hub of the kitchen, where the food and the wait staff came together. The galley runs the full width of the ship, and spans two decks. The facilities are duplicated in mirror image on each side of the ship. We were standing in the center of the upper level of the starboard side, an area devoted to food pick-up, baking and ‘cold’ preparation. Below, off limits to the tour, was the ‘hot’ galley, where the bulk of the food was prepared and cooked.

Preparation is continuous throughout the day and night. After orders are taken, the waiter or waitress descends into the upper galley via escalator and checks into a little office where the orders are transferred to computer. Orders are consolidated and relayed to the preparation areas. Although the staff has a pretty good idea what the typical distribution of orders will be for a given meal, they have to react to the inevitable variations – say, 65 steaks medium-well, 83 medium-rare and one peanut butter and jelly sandwich on doughy white bread with the crust removed. Down below, meals are cooked and plated to order according to demand. Arriving by lift to our location, the final embellishments are added before the waiters pick up the meals.

All round us, pictures marked coolers, cabinets and countertops to indicate the locations where various dishes would be picked up when ready. In some glass front cabinets, items not cooked to order (cold dishes and desserts) were already in evidence for tonight’s meal.

The atmosphere in the upper galley was remarkably relaxed. Apart from the tour group only a couple of people were visible, and they didn’t seem to be doing anything at all with food. Things were probably quite different on the level below — down there, still out of sight, were the remainders of the provisions loaded for our seven day cruise:

* 9,250 pounds of beef
* 2,500 pounds of lamb
* 2,260 pounds of pork
* 2,250 pounds of veal
* 800 pounds of sausage
* 3,000 pounds of chicken
* 1,100 pounds of duck
* 2,500 pounds of turkey
* 6,000 pounds of fish
* 30 pounds of crab
* 1,000 pounds of lobster
* 26,000 pounds of fresh vegetables
* 8,000 pounds of potatoes
* 36,000 pounds of fresh fruit
* 2,700 gallons of milk
* 400 quarts of ice cream
* 896 dozen eggs
* 2,250 pounds of sugar
* 2,250 pounds of rice
* 500 pounds of cereal
* 300 pounds of jelly
* 1,000 pounds of coffee
* 1,450 pounds of cookies
* 5,000 tea bags
* 80 pounds of herbs and spices

I alternated between the video and still cameras while trying to hear the chef’s monologue. The ambient noise level was very high – lots of fans and blowers – so a lot of what was said was inaudible to anyone more than a few feet from the speaker. I had lost my spot in the central group and didn’t hear much.

The crowd migrated away from the center of the galley, and paused to marvel over a few of the carvings that had been prepared for tonight’s Grand Buffet. Frederick posed behind a dragon made of cheese – a remarkable piece.

We continued on to an open doorway leading to the bakery. The room was surprisingly narrow, not very long, and extremely hot. Here, finally, was some action – unavoidable since this part of the operation literally never stops. Two bakers were making rolls, breadsticks and other pastries. In an oven the size and shape of a large refrigerator, a carousel of baking trays laden with breadsticks rotated behind a glass door. If you think the breadsticks are good in the dining room, you ought to try them fresh from the oven…

Rounding a corner, we were met by staff handing out champagne and petits fours. After a toast, there was time for a question and answer session during which I picked up a few tidbits: The formula for every dish is prescribed by Chef Roux’s operation. Variations can be suggested by the shipboard staff, but must be tested and approved by ‘HQ’. Changes to the menu are made quarterly, with a 30% turnover occurring over a typical two-year period (although a 50-60% change was expected during 2004). Millennium’s menu spans 14 days without repeats for longer cruises. Edible scraps are fed to the fish, and everything else is separated and stored for disposal or recycling on shore. There are 123 chefs, 12 bakers, one butcher and one fishmonger. Certain areas of the galley are devoted to preparing ‘special diet’ and children’s meals.

We ended the tour by ascending the escalator to the lower level of the dining room. I found it hard to imagine the waiters balancing trays of 16 meals on that ride. My respect for their hard work elevated a few notches above an already high level. At the top, another escalator continued to the upper level, and a bank of service elevators led, I presume, to upper levels for room service delivery.

Kris and I thanked Frederick for the tour and exited the dining room.

“That must be a real zoo at mealtime,” I offered.

“I still don’t see how they manage to do it. So, was that as exciting as you hoped it would be?”

“Not really, but I’m glad we did it. I think I need to get down to the lower galley where the action is – people cutting things, refrigerators, steaming vats and smoking grills…and I really want to see how they handle the garbage.”

“I don’t,” said Kris.

“It’s a guy thing.”

“Apparently.”

“If they gave a garbage tour and handed out champagne at the end, would you go?”

She seemed to be considering it, but never answered. We headed back to the cabin by way of the shopping area. The shops contained the same things as they had during earlier visits, and we made no acquisitions.

As we were relaxing in the cabin with afternoon hors douvres, Kris was suddenly struck by an idea. “I’m going to get my hair done,” she said.

“Why?” I asked. I got a look – one that questioned the planet of my birth. Somewhere pretty far out there, apparently. Maybe Pluto. I thought it was a logical question. Kris used to wear her hair long. Years ago, she adopted a short style. I expressed my honest preference for long locks, and ever since then she’s assured me that she’s growing it back. Inexplicably, every time she returns from the salon, her hair is still short. When I ask why, she tells me that she has to keep it even while it grows out. I’m beginning to suspect that I’m being played on this one…

Just for fun, I pushed the issue. “What can they possibly do to your hair? I have more hair than you do. Maybe I should go.”

“It’s a girl thing. You had your guy thing today.”

“I didn’t get to see the garbage room. What we did was a unisex thing.”

“I’ve got to get ready.”

This was the last formal night, and Kris got herself all gussied up for dinner and then headed off for the salon. Her parting words were, “I’ll meet you guys at the table.”

I knew the real reason why Kris went to get her hair done – she didn’t want to be around while I shot the video with the boys, lest she be asked to do something in front of the camera. I can relate. That’s why I always operate the camera, safely behind the scenes. I dressed in my tux and waited for the boys to arrive. At 7:05, the doorbell rang. They were ten minutes early.

I sized them up. They looked pretty good, but something important was missing. “Where are your sunglasses?”

“We didn’t bring them,” Dan answered for the pair.

“Get them.”

“Do we really have to?” asked Wells.

“Now! Hurry up.”

By the time they got back, the video camera had a fresh tape and was fully warmed up…

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