A Day in the Life: HAL executive chef


In this, the final installment of the Day in the Life series, TWcrossroads Managing Editor Michael Nassaur takes a closer look at what it takes to be the executive chef of a major cruise ship sailing from Costa Rica to Fort Lauderdale.

ONBOARD THE AMSTERDAM -- Imagine you've invited a few close friends to a dinner party. You have to plan the menu, buy the ingredients, select the wine and cook a sumptuous meal. A lot of details to see to, aren't there?

Now imagine that dinner party is for 1,300 guests. And they're not only coming for dinner and dessert, but for breakfast, lunch and snacks as well. And they're coming every day.

Chef Hendrix prepares a sandwich at the Lido deli station.Now you have some idea of what it's like to be Robert Hendrix, executive chef of Holland America's newest flagship Amsterdam.

Granted, he has a bit more help. The Amsterdam boasts more than 70 kitchen staffers, all of whom are devoted to one basic ideal -- making sure every meal served to those 1,300 guests seems like it was prepared with only the eater in mind.

How do they achieve such a lofty goal? Planning.

Hendrix' day begins around 7 a.m., when the ship's galley just starts stirring to life. In his office, which looks out into the main area of the stainless-steel shod galley, Hendrix checks his e-mail and prepares for the day to come.

He completes some paperwork and makes early edits to the menu, changing items as necessary based upon the supplies on hand. We are toward the end of Amsterdam's return trip to its home port of Fort Lauderdale, so it has been nearly three weeks since the last time Hendrix fully stocked the ship's stores.

He verifies with Arli Noma, proviand (supply master), that chicken noodle soup is available and puts the order in his computer; the ingredients will be delivered from the ship's inventory to the kitchen.

That taken care of, Hendrix ties on a napkin kerchief, dons his hat and heads off to make his first rounds. It is 7:25 a.m.

You've heard it said before that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And Hendrix agrees, but for a different reason: It sets the expectations for every other meal, he says.

His first stop is the Lido buffet, where things are just getting under way. As he exchanges a quick round of "Good mornings" with the buffet servers, Hendrix scans the steam trays, making sure every station is full and pleasing to the eye.

The main line passes the test, but as he walks from the continental breakfast area, he finds a loose floor tile. He makes a note of it for the maintenance staff.

At 7:30 a.m. he arrives at the deck 7 Neptune Lounge, the private refuge for suite passengers. He pauses briefly to verify that the continental offerings there are in order, then checks on the room service kitchen on deck 6.

Next up (actually down) is deck 2 to check on the officer's buffet and the crew galley. Aside from the 1,300 guests, Hendrix also is in charge of feeding more than 600 crewmembers on wildly different schedules. Add in the fasting requirements of religious periods such as Ramadan, and you have a logistical feat of titanic proportions.

So where does all the food for about 2,000 people come from?

Well, fresh items are supplemented as necessary in the turn-around stop of Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, or along the way in ports such as St. Thomas.

But since prices can be up to 300% higher in those places, most of the supplies are sourced in the home port of Fort Lauderdale... which means Amsterdam must carry enough groceries to last for 20 days.

With all that food to sort through, how does Hendrix know what he has on hand?

There is, of course, the computerized inventory system. But, he says, the information there is only as good as the information put in, and sometimes items are logged out of the system and not used, or taken out of the store room without being logged. So there is only one way to be sure, and that's what we're going to go do now.

This trip we check on the ice room, the thawing room, the vegetable prep room and the butcher shop. Amsterdam uses fresh meat whenever possible and, Hendrix says, has one of the last shipgoing butchers from Holland onboard. All the meat is cut by hand, so the butcher does have an assistant.

In the thawing room are a few blocks of ice getting to proper temperature for ice carving. The carvings are done by crewmembers in their spare time.

It is now 8 a.m. and we return to the main galley. Activity is picking up as breakfast is now being served in the dining room.

He checks his e-mail again and has a message from the home office for a passenger coming on a future cruise. The passenger's dietary restrictions limit meal options to fresh fish, salads and tofu. He says this will be a challenge to look forward to.

But Hendrix is no stranger to special orders. Every day he sorts through a stack of passenger requests; most are for salt/sugar free meals and occasionally gluten free.

Most interesting though are the occasion cake requests.

He says with a smile that just about everyone's birthday or anniversary falls on the second day of the cruise. Passengers see others get a cake on the first night, and decide they want one, too. Hendrix said the second-day requests usually average between 50 and 75.

The final menu for this Day in the Life.It is now 8:55 a.m. and another menu proof has been delivered. He compares it to his early changes, but, now that he has a better handle on what is available, makes a few more changes.

He says fish selections change the most often, especially on the return trip from Costa Rica. The dishes themselves, i.e. preparation, sauces, etc., stay the same, but sometimes grouper will be replaced with mahi mahi or halibut with snapper.

The menu's chef recommendations can be changed as well, but are not made based on any preference of one dish over another (or on what the ship has the most of). Rather, Hendrix tries to recommend something that most diners might never order in a regular restaurant, such as tonight's entree recommendation, osso buco (veal shank).

For new recipes though, those get tested on the crew when they have special occasion dinners. The next guinea pig gathering will be for food and beverage manager Alexandra Grieten, who is sailing her last cruise on this trip. If the dishes are a hit, they might eventually make their way onto the regular menu. The home office has control of the basic menu, he says, but they will consider making changes.

The clock has struck 9:15 a.m. and it's time for another walkthrough. Hendrix' first stop is the controller's office, where he drops off supply orders he already has approved, and then he goes to the print shop to drop off the finalized menu.

At 9:20 we're back in the Lido buffet. The ship is coming to life and the buffet is very busy. He immediately moves the milk containers forward in the buffet line. Why?

There can be plenty of something (in this case milk) available, he says, but if the containers are all toward the back, it gives passengers the impression that the station is empty. And that's an impression a passenger should never have.

Back down in the storage rooms, a check in the dry goods area shows that in reality there is more sugar on board (31 cases) than the computer lists (24 cases). He makes a note. Fixing that discrepancy saves a good deal of money in his budget, which gives him more leeway in other areas.

In the defrosting room, fish and poultry are kept separate while they defrost at a precisely controlled temperature over the course of three days.

It is 9:45 and we're back in the galley office. He looks over the daily report from yesterday, which lists any problems, complaints or incidents from across the ship in the last 24 hours.

The butcher stops by and drops off his order. Hendrix says the butcher's is always the most expensive of all and that today is the last day to put in orders for St. Thomas.

Hendrix must check all orders to make sure what is requested is actually needed.

He says every bit of food -- from the goldfish crackers in the bar to the nighttime chocolate on the pillow -- ultimately is his responsibility. Quite often, requestors will overestimate what they need to keep from running out. He must make sure to keep things in balance.

Back in the kitchen, things are start to calm down around 10 a.m. But that won't last for long. Today is the day for the galley tour. In about half an hour, hundreds of passengers will be filing through to meet Hendrix and his staff in the place where it all happens. Hendrix says the tours are done once per cruise on a 10-day sailing, twice on a 14-day.

Ice carvers already are in place and are starting some preliminary shaping in preparation for the tour's arrival. There is a palpable sense of anticipation among the staff.

At 10:27 a.m., Hendrix dons his medal from the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs gourmet society and moves out into the galley to receive the passengers.

A few minutes later, the guests begin to arrive and Hendrix greets them all with a warm smile and a handshake.

Chef Hendrix welcomes one of the passengers on the galley tour.Most stop for a picture with the chef and offer their compliments on the food.

One passenger says, "You've been feeding us too much."

"Too much, that's exactly what I want to hear," Hendrix replies.

At around 11 a.m., the line finally begins to thin out. But if it weren't for a scheduling change, Hendrix would be leading a private tour for a group from Vantage Hospitality.

The Lido buffet opens for lunch at 11:30 a.m. and Hendrix again takes another quick walkthrough. He says that in the next hour, about 400 to 500 people will make their way through the line. His standard is that the buffet should look as good then as when it opened.

At 12:25 p.m., as predicted, the security monitor in Hendrix' office shows the Lido is extremely busy.

As he makes his way back up, he meets Dutch-speaking passengers in the elevator. They are looking for the theater and he gives them directions in Dutch.

After some minor adjustments at the Lido, Hendrix checks on the poolside options -- the grill and pizza parlor.

The food is fine, but he notices a staff member slip around the back of the line and grab a slice of pizza ahead of some passengers.

Hendrix makes a note and later explains that is a serious transgression. As a matter of course, all crew must let passengers eat first. But instead of making the situation worse by dressing down the staffer in front of passengers, Hendrix will speak with the staffer's supervisor at a later meeting.

After we return to the main galley, Hendrix goes to check on the kitchen for the Odyssey restaurant, Amsterdam's alternative dining venue. Since we are at sea today, the restaurant is open for lunch, no reservations required. Odyssey Chef Michelangelo has a few orders to put in for tonight's dinner.

From 1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., Hendrix stops for lunch. He takes a break from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

At 5 p.m., I'm back in his office. Hendrix already is there, reviewing the officers table list that the Maitre D' e-mailed over.

He takes a look at the preliminary menu for the next night and much to my delight, Milky Way pie is on. However, garlic mashed potatoes have replaced the roasted sweet potatoes scheduled to accompany the grilled lamb chop.

Chef Hendrix giving direction during the early-seating dinner rush. At 5:20, Hendrix makes one more walkthrough before the dinner rush. He checks on the officer's buffet and the Lido (which offers another alternative dinner experience). Appetizers for a cabin party sit awaiting pickup. Hendrix reminds the staffers that they should be in the warmer or they'll be cold when they get there.

At 5:30 he looks over the display dish for tonight's prawn entree. He pulls it apart and resets it, adding asparagus stalks. That display dish is the blueprint for how the dish should look, so getting it right is key.

Next we sample the soups. Hendrix lets me play taster and the chicken noodle is right on. The Caribbean black bean, however, needs a bit of salt.

In the calm before the storm, Hendrix receives an e-mail from one of the other ships in the fleet. The chef there needs gluten-free bread recipes for a passenger. Hendrix sends out a recipe they have on board.

At 6 p.m., the waiters begin their parade into the kitchen, picking up bread baskets and selecting salads from the cold area.

The galley is broken into two main areas: cold and hot.

Waiters queue up and are allowed to move through the lines only as things clear up. The idea is to keep the hot food in the heat for as long as possible instead of letting four dishes get cold while the waiter is collecting two others. The goal is to have all entrees served by 7 p.m.

Hendrix keeps a close eye on the progress, moving from station to station.

There is a problem with the dessert station. The cheesecakes have been covered and stacked. Since that could cause condensation to form on the dessert, Hendrix helps unstack and uncover them.

After first seating winds down, Hendrix has about an hour before the second seating rush begins; his day won't end until after 10:30 p.m.

Recipe for a chef

Executive chef Robert Hendrix has a long background in cooking. He trained at two culinary schools in the south of Holland, spending six years in bakery/pastry, plus six years in the kitchen.

Hendrix says his greatest challenge was learning to cook for an American clientele. "In Europe, we know butter and cream," he said, but Americans tend to look for lighter fare. To develop his lighter touch, Hendrix took courses at the Culinary Institute of America.

But when it comes to his own meals, Hendrix' favorite is something you won't see on a Holland America menu anytime soon: sauteed goose liver.


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