The Chef de Cuisine for 150 Central Park on Royal Caribbean's Allure and Oasis of the Seas, Maureen "Molly" Brandt, is going to be a contestant on the ninth season of Top Chef, which airs in November. Molly sat down for an interview with eater.com to discuss her life as a chef on a cruise ship.
Coming from working in restaurant kitchens on land, what has been the biggest challenge you've encountered cooking on a cruise ship? What's the biggest relief?
Sure, I miss gas heat, but that's surmountable. The biggest challenge of cooking on a cruise ship isn't the cooking at all, it's the inventory. On land you can just call up your favorite purveyors and order something different for the next days menu and it will be delivered in the morning. Here you have to plan a month to a month and a half ahead to get different products onboard. First I have to identify the exact product I want, and then contact our purchasing agents who then source it through a distributor at the best possible price. Then it's entered in to our inventory management system, and contracted for the Miami market. Then it's ordered by our onboard team 2 weeks in advance of the receiving date. It's a process! The biggest relief in cooking on a cruise ship is that I know absolutely that the cooks for the restaurant are going to show up every single day. Unless they intend to swim ashore I suppose!
What comes first when you design menus?
I have a really cerebral method to designing my menus for the ship. My first step is to figure out the focus ingredient of each dish for the menus. After a little over a year at sea I pretty much know what the tastes are of the demographic onboard, and that helps to determine what that focus ingredient will be. After that I decide on a theme per dish, and I don't limit myself, it could be a color, season, place, a classic dish.... really anything. Then I pick a the primary cooking method for each featured ingredient. After that I set up a grid, and work out the puzzle to achieve a balance of color, flavor, texture, and cooking method per each dish and tie it in to my decided theme.
If you could whittle down the list to the essentials, what would be your advice to a new chef at sea? What would be five things for chef Schwartz and his chef de cuisine Jamie Seyba to keep in mind as they prepare to execute the new menu with your help?
1. Have patience with the inventory.
2. Wear your track shoes.... Sometimes it's quite a distance between point A & B on the world's largest cruise ship.
3. Accept all assistance that is offered.
4. Invest in an alarm clock for those early United States Public Health internal inspection mornings.
5. Enjoy life onboard. Remember that this isn't just a job, it's a lifestyle.
What's the favorite chef hangout on board?
Probably the most popular place to decompress after work is to head to the deck 6 crew bar, located directly underneath the helipad. Some pretty epic parties are hosted there.
When chefs eat on board what do they prefer (venue as well as dish)?
Well officially we eat most of our meals in the Garden Cafe, which is the crew buffet. However my favorite thing to eat for lunch is the Kummelweck sandwich at Park Cafe. It's roast beef at it's finest on a salty caraway seed roll with special mustard and horseradish. I probably eat 3-4 a week.
How often do you go off-ship and what's the first thing you want to do and/or eat?
I have a very unique contract that allows me to be off the ship for little pockets of time, and when I fly in to Miami my first stop is invariably Michael's Genuine Food & Drink.... No, seriously, it is! I crave his heirloom tomato and burrata salad, and crispy hominy. Other than that I try to get out to as many different restaurants as possible to see what other chefs are doing, as I'm so isolated on the ship. I also may get off the ship at ports of call, and typically I go for lunch and an icy cold adult beverage!
You are a second officer's rank. What does that role entail?
Actually I'm a 2 1/2 stripe officer, which I find pretty hilarious as a chef, but don't worry, no one is saluting. All it really means is that I'm in a managerial position running 150 Central Park from top to bottom. It also allows me some nice perks onboard and most importantly for me, the ability to go virtually anywhere on the ship.
What do you think of the menus chef Michael has developed? Are there any dishes that stand out in your mind and why?
I'm a big fan of Michael's food, and only wish that he had a restaurant on my permanent ship the Allure of the Seas! The biggest standout for me is his roasted Harris ranch short rib with Swank Farms watercress, cipollini onions, and romesco. It is a huge combination of flavors and textures, and the execution is spot on. I'll take two please!
Is there any product you are interested in working with based on what chef Schwartz is sourcing from South Florida farms?
After tasting the Pak Choi last night from Swank Farms I will definitely be finding a way to integrate it in to my winter menus. The flavor is so complex and vibrant, I could have eaten just a plate of that and been happy.