What a mess: Cooking and serving aboard State of Maine take creativity

This story was published on June 06, 2007 on Page B1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

AT SEA IN THE MEDITERRANEAN – When cooking and preparing three meals a day for 250 people aboard a 500-foot ship, it doesn’t take long before the math gets tricky.

The utility crew aboard the Maine Maritime Academy training ship State of Maine, however, makes it look easy, even though it’s anything but.

“They are the hardest-working people on the ship, no doubt about it,” said Leo Mazerall, one the ship’s training officers.

Food is just one of the many things that have to be handled a little differently at sea, and Dan Salls, the State of Maine’s chief cook, said creativity is the key.

“You have to be creative. I try to do my best to take care of these kids,” said Salls, who is participating in his 20th cruise. “If anyone asks me how many kids I have, I tell them I have one son and 200 others.”

Long before the ship left Castine on May 8, 22 truckloads carrying 9,000 pounds of food were loaded on board. Peanut butter alone accounted for 800 pounds.

“Normally, prepping everything for the cruise takes about one month,” said Omar Chaar, chief steward aboard the State of Maine.

Additionally, at each port so far, the steward has restocked certain perishable items such as fresh produce and milk.

In Palermo, for instance, where the ship was docked May 31 to June 2, the utility staff stocked up on local specialties including Bing cherries, smoked ham and even Italian tiramisu and cannolis for dessert.

“We try to use as much of the local stores as possible,” Chaar said.

The food was lowered onto large pallets, which were hoisted up over the side of the ship and down through a hatch in the main deck to the galley area.

Everything perishable is stored in one of several large freezers on the floors just below the main deck. At the beginning of the cruise in May, there was very little room to move around, Salls said.

“You get some boys that are my size, it gets kind of hard, so we usually send the skinnier guys in,” he said with a chuckle. “The freezers aren’t built for guys my size.”

Each day, the mess serves an average of 855 meals. Chow times usually spread out over an hour-and-a-half period for each meal, and students and crew members stagger their times so they don’t overwhelm the utility workers.

One cook works a late-night shift when the ship is in ports, so students coming back from their excursions can fill up. Some refer to it as “drunk chow.”

As far as the menu goes, Salls, who works for Maine Maritime Academy year-round, said he uses a 28-day cycle, which doesn’t include any specialty items.

“I enjoy making a bunch of different things,” he said. “Usually you can tell how popular something is by how much they eat, and these boys know how to eat.”

Salls said he works by portion size to determine how much to make.

“Our food waste is usually pretty minor. Guys have gotten pretty good at judging how much to make,” he said.

Meals run the gamut of fish, chicken, pork, turkey, beef and pasta dishes. There are always desserts and unlimited drinks. Students joke that they probably will gain 10 pounds during the cruise.

Another big part of meals is the social element. Students and staff catch up with one another, crack jokes, tell stories and look forward to the next port. Other than musters, it’s really the only time there is a large number of students in one place.

Seasoned crew members tend to be the first ones in line at breakfast. Many freshmen show up near the end or don’t make it all, perhaps trying to sneak an extra hour of sleep.

The galley itself is chaotic, with several cooks and servers whizzing by each other in close quarters. They are always friendly, though.

“If you’re going to make friends with anyone on board, these are the guys,” said Kaveh Haghkerdar, an engine training officer.

Even when students and crew members aren’t sitting down to eat, there is always a flurry of activity near the mess.

“If we’re not serving one meal, we’re preparing for the next,” Salls said.

The age of the utility staff ranges from 18 to 76. Some of the food prep workers are MMA students not enrolled in the licensing programs that require cruise time, but they can sign on to work the cruise and are paid.

“It’s an interesting summer job, and they get a pretty good experience,” Chaar said.

The utility staff members technically are employed by Sodexho, a company that contracts with MMA year-round to provide its dining services. Many of the regular employees volunteer to accompany the cruise.

In addition to the staff, six freshman students on board assist at each meal. Three are assigned to scullery, which means they wash dishes, and the other three bus tables.

“Without those students helping us, we would need to bring a lot more staff,” Salls said.

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