Compliments to the chef

Good chief cooks are worth their weight in gold

By Michael Grey

If an army, as was allegedly said by Napoleon, ‘marches on its stomach’, what effect might the quality of the food have on the productivity and efficiency of a ship? This is not a hypothetical question that could be argued about around the messroom table, but is a serious point developed from the obvious statement that a ‘happy crew makes a happy ship’ and that there is a direct connection between this desirable state of mind and the performance of the cook.

This important link was recently made by Christian Ioannou of the international catering management and training provider MCTC, who was emphasising his belief that highly motivated chief cooks aboard ship are worth their weight in gold. He points out the plainly obvious: good, well-prepared and presented food makes mealtimes enjoyable, but also, he suggests, the work of these hard- working people should not be taken for granted. Like any other human being, the cook who dishes up delicious meals three times a day, for month after month, needs to be shown appreciation and respect.

I recall a very grand shipowner, who, when visiting his big cruise ships for some ceremonial occasion, such as the naming of a new vessel, never failed at

the conclusion of the dinner to vanish into the galley to thank the cooks and stewards for their contribution. It wasn’t just an empty gesture, but something he believed mattered more than being on hand to bid farewell to the distinguished guests. He took his time to meet and thank people individually. Maybe they might have preferred, given the choice, a 10% pay rise, but there was no doubt that his presence, and expressions of appreciation, made a positive difference to their work. And Ioannou makes clear that everyone, from the company who employs them to the crew who eat the food the cook prepares, should try and understand something of the unique challenges of catering at sea. People, says Ioannou, should focus on how to support and motivate them and show appreciation for their contribution to the success of the voyage.

Financial benefits

It is also suggested that beside toiling over hot galley ranges for up to 15 hours a day turning out meals for the ship’s complement, the cook aboard a well-run merchant ship actually contributes to the financial success of the voyage. That’s not far-fetched either, if you consider that a competent cook takes care of the provisions that are supplied and, with good management of the stores, eliminates waste. Go a bit further down the chain of consequences that flow from a well-fed ship and there will be better productivity aboard, people will be healthier and will want to return to that ship after their time on leave, reducing crew retention and replacement problems. That’s worth something, too and it is even suggested that healthier crews will lead to lower P&I claims if sick people are not having to be repatriated. So, there is quite a lot of ‘self-interest’ in any policy that aims to keep a crew happy and healthy.

What is also inferred here is the need for those who manage ships and appoint their crews to be attuned to the well-being of their crews, not least after a couple of years when, as those who study crew ‘happiness indices’ have emphasised, life for seafarers has been quite dreadful. But it ought to be possible, albeit mindful of the difficulties of finding stores in locked-down ports, to make a real effort to ensure that crews are properly fed. The company that shows it cares about the quality of food it provides with its appointment of well-trained cooks is making a statement that will differentiate itself from those who do not think about these matters. It is a shipping company that cares and what’s more, demonstrates that fact. In my days at sea, we used to talk about a ship being a ‘good feeder’. Perhaps that’s a message that ought to be shared more widely today.