I left Michelin-starred restaurants to work as a cruise chef. We can feed 10,000 people a day and I'll never leave this job.
- Gary Thomas had never seen a cruise ship before he went to work as a chef on Oasis of the Seas.
- Thomas plans to work for Royal Caribbean until he retires and hates to think of leaving cruising.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Gary Thomas, the senior traveling corporate executive chef for Royal Caribbean. This essay has been edited for length and clarity.
I never thought I'd work in the cruise industry. I'd never even seen a cruise ship in person before I rolled up to Oasis of the Seas. It was the first cruise ship I worked on and the biggest ship on the planet when it was being built.
That moment will live with me forever.
I've been the senior corporate traveling executive chef for 11 years and worked at Royal Caribbean for nearly 15. I oversee the culinary operations and 6,000 chefs across all 26 ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet. From menus and inventory to the day-to-day running of the kitchens in all our ships, I oversee it all.
I head a corporate team of eight administrators who manage the 52 executive chefs on board the ships. Our team is responsible for making sure each ship can serve as many as 75,000 meals a day, seven days a week.
How I got into the cruise industry
I was always curious about cruises and whether the cooking standards were similar to kitchens on land.
Having spent 15 years working in specialty restaurants — like the luxury hotel restaurants at Claridge's and the London Michelin-starred restaurant Le Gavroche — I decided it was time to satisfy my curiosity.
In the early 2010s, I applied for a four-month contract as an executive chef for Royal Caribbean.
I was coming on board into a high position with no prior cruise experience. I was so nervous, I didn't think I'd last a week. Over a decade later, I'm still with Royal Caribbean. Taking this job was the best choice I ever made.
What my day is like as an executive chef on board
Ninety percent of my time is spent on board different vessels in our fleet. I'm usually on the same boat for two to three weeks, and occasionally I work from the Miami or UK offices. I'm based in Liverpool, where my family lives.
I spend most of my day on calls and answering emails. I average between 1,000 and 2,000 emails a week.
When I'm on a ship, I do some inspections with my executive chefs, culinary managers, and hotel leaders and offer ad hoc support. In the evenings, I walk around the ship with the executive chef and offer observational feedback.
Life as a chef on a cruise ship versus on land
People always judge the cooking on a ship.
Our goal is to make sure that everyone's fed and watered — and leaves the ship 10 pounds heavier.
We are responsible for feeding guests and crew alike. If our staff have full tummies and are satisfied, that translates positively into the guests' experience.
As a chef on land, you only focus on your restaurant. But on board the largest ship on the planet, the 1,188-foot-long Wonder of the Seas, we have to feed nearly 10,000 people a day.
This is the largest ship in our fleet. There are 33 kitchens on board, ranging from high-end specialty restaurants and steak houses to buffet areas, pizzerias, and sandwich shops. We also have a main dining room that seats up to 3,000 people.
On land, your menus don't change much. Here, they change every day across the fleet. Our only fixed menus are the à la carte specialty-dining menus.
When you finish work at a restaurant or hotel at home, you can go home and switch off. As an executive cruise chef, I manage fleet operations seven days a week, 365 days a year.
I get normal annual leave, but it can be hard to switch off even on land. I'm still observing from afar. I don't mind it, though, because there's a good family spirit on board.
We'd never mess with Royal Caribbean's signature dishes
We have a product-development team that works with me and my team to develop menus across the fleet. They look at food trends and consumer insights on our dishes, and I do the culinary development with my team based on that.
Some dishes might be introduced, some might be archived, and some might be tweaked. I listen to the guests more than I listen to anybody else.
There are a few signature dishes in the main dining rooms across the whole fleet that you just don't touch, like the garlic tiger shrimp, the escargot, and the prime ribs, because they're so beloved by passengers.
We'd be hanged, drawn, and quartered if we changed the prime ribs.
How a kitchen on a cruise operates
Everything we serve guests is produced on board. We butcher our own meat and fish, bake all our bread, and make all our desserts.
For an Oasis-class ship, which carries up to 7,000 passengers, we load nearly $1 million worth of inventory onto the ship every seven days.
The fridges are a sight to behold. We operate a first-in, first-out system. Our target every seven days is for the fresh-produce fridges to be empty, ready to take on the new loading.
I'll do this job until I retire
The people I've met while working as a cruise chef have inspired me, given me opportunities, and believed in me. You miss home, but there is a real family spirit on board cruise ships. It's one of the reasons I've stayed for so long.
I've been exposed to many cultures all over the world during my 15-year tenure. I estimate I've circumnavigated the globe over 100 times. These experiences are priceless to me.
I will 1 million percent do this job until I retire. I love my job and can't imagine leaving.
Thinking about walking off the ship for the last time and knowing that I'm going home for good is scary, but I've got some good years left in me yet.
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