Dining with the Queen

October 22nd, 2014 by Rebecca Robins

Fifty tons of fresh fruit and vegetables, twelve tons of meat, eight tons of poultry, five hundred gallons of milk, 32,000 eggs.  Can you imagine cracking open 32,000 eggs?  Not to mention cooking everything on this (incomplete) list in eight days?  Because that’s what this list is, a week and a day supply for one of the most famous restaurants in the world.

And where is this famous and voracious restaurant?   It depends.  Sometimes it’s in New York, sometimes Sydney, sometimes Hong Kong.  Sometimes it’s a thousand miles from any city at all.  That means there’s no running to the corner store or phoning up one’s favorite purveyor to send over an extra ten dozen quail for tomorrow’s high tea and there will always be high tea.

That’s because this steel-shuttered, extremely organized, moveable feast is the enormous kitchen aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, the longest passenger ship in the world and a vessel of superlatives by any measure — including the stocking of provisions for these Atlantic crossings.

It’s a logistical challenge getting everything on and everything off.  The turn-around in New York after seven days at sea has the precision of a military maneuver.  In the morning, the Queen Mary arrives at Red Hook in Brooklyn (those Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr Affair to Remember parting moments in the heart of Manhattan are sadly no more).  While the kitchen produces a disembarkation breakfast for 2,600, stevedores begin restocking for the seven day return voyage, which begins some nine hours later with the first gala dinner at sea.   The new eastbound passengers, having waved goodbye to the Statue of Liberty and seen New York’s skyscrapers fade beyond the Verazzano Narrows Bridge,  seat themselves in the Queen’s Grill.  Or the Princess Grill.  Or perhaps the Britannica, or the Britannica Club.

They are all served by a single, massive kitchen.  And I mean massive.  At a brisk walk, it takes ten minutes to simply walk the aisles.  Long rows of burners.  Massive pots simmering stocks and soups. Ovens full of roasts and chickens and fish.  And walls of spotless stainless steel and glass cases cases chilling row after row of appetizers, canapés, desserts, juices.

There were two sheets of paper stuck to the double doors that opened into the Britannica dining room.    The first, attached to left door, was carefully printed out.  “Please do not use this door during service to avoid guest complaint.”  A second note had gone up on the right door:  “Attention.  Please don’t open this door during service.   Period!!!!”

To open the door would be to break the illusion and ocean liners have always been about illusion.  One is that you’re in the heart of civilization, not gliding on the surface of a hypothermic abyss.  Another is that the grace and ease of the passenger experience are just the way things are here, not the result of hard work behind the scenes.  There’s another kind of illusion, and one that’s unique to a modern-day liner like the Queen Mary 2.  It’s that you are, for a few days, inhabiting a world and a life that today only exists in movies, and maybe only ever did.

Of all the restaurants the kitchen serves, ours was the Britannica Club, a small enclosed portion of the larger two-story Britannica room.  The food in the Club was presented with a bit more formality, and because there was a single seating instead of two, we had the liberty of arriving for dinner anywhere between six and ten.  It was cozy, tucked up near the front on the port side.

Cozy, however, does have its limits;  an unannounced fire drill caused two heavy steel doors to suddenly slide shut, sealing us inside.  I hyperventilated for a moment, flashing on other kinds of movies, ones with submarines, and typically Richard Widmark or Robert Mitchum, in which a portion of the crew comes to a bad end after just such a closing.  The servers, however, didn’t seem all that concerned (since most of them were from the Philippines, they’d probably avoided scarring by Widmark or Mitchum movies) and after a few long minutes the doors slid open again.  As I walked out, I was glad I’d kept my dignity by not screaming.

The food — when we weren’t approaching crush depth — was good: imaginative, well prepared, and amazingly fresh tasting, even on the last days of the voyage.  But the most enjoyable moments in the dining room weren’t about the food.  You want friends for life?  Take a ship and have twenty-five meals with some strangers. I still correspond with a couple we spent a week’s voyage with over twenty years ago.

When you purchase tickets, you are asked: a table for two, four, six, or eight?  I figure if it’s a table for two I might as well stay home unless I’m on my honeymoon.  Four is a problem if the other two are complete duds.  Six will dilute potential duds, but I prefer to go for broke.  Eight is the ideal table size; any larger and someone always gets left out of the conversation.  On our westbound, trip, we hit the jackpot.

There was Marian, an elegant woman from Munich who lived in New York and was returning home to her husband, Klaus.  There was an English couple, Dai and his wife, Val, both tall, elegant, witty.  Val was blonde.  Dai might have been, but it was hard to tell, since he had no hair.  Julia, a one-time pathologist from New Jersey, dramatically entered with the announcement that, though she was at sea, her luggage had somehow remained ashore.  She habitually traveled six to eight months a year and was proud of packing light, but now she faced a week aboard the Cunard flagship, with the clothes on her back and the contents of her small carry on.  Lucky for her, that carry-on held large and dramatic jewelry which — with a visit to one of the onboard shops for some cover ups and a t shirt for sleeping — got her through.   The last at our table then were the two of us. Not as tall nor as thin, nor, alas, as witty.

At the end of the crossing, we said our goodbyes in Red Hook and went our various ways.  But, as I mentioned, though the voyage ends, the voyagers don’t.  After I returned home I heard from Marian.  She’d left for Europe again, by air this time, to visit Munich with her husband Klaus.  I didn’t hear from Julia, but that wasn’t a surprise; she’s probably busy on another trip, and traveling so light she’ll never go home again.  And then there was an email from the blonde half of Val and Dai, who wrote:

On our bookshelves we actually have a novel titled “Valerie French”, a very silly old novel by a very silly old novelist called Dornford Yates.  I don’t want to raise a duststorm by taking off the shelf, but I’m pretty sure it involves the heroine motoring down to Biarritz in some fabulous car.  Valerie French is exactly the kind of gal who would sail regularly in the Queen Mary and only stay in the finest hotels.  I’m pleased to say that we returned from New York to find that our garden had been very well cared for, surprisingly well. Despite the fact that the weather  had been very hot and dry, all the plants were fine and the vegetables, thanks to dutiful watering, were thriving.

Even if it came via email and not the afternoon post of the Royal Mail, that’s exactly the sort of letter you’d hope to get from literate Brits you met aboard ship.

Now, depending on how quick you are with numbers, you may be wondering how we filled a table for eight with six people.  There were two other chairs but no one ever arrived. It’s possible that they took a look at the six of us and decided to dine in their cabin, or maybe Cunard simply ran out of takers for the table for eight.  But there’s a part of me that likes to think that the chairs belonged to two people who thought their mealtimes would be better spent strolling the deserted promenade deck.  People like Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.


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Tags:  Food Culture 
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