Hired to cook for 20, stuck cooking for 40...
May 16, 2015 11:54 PM   Subscribe

I was tapped by management recently to work the galley of a decent sized merchant vessel. Due to varying factors, I am stuck working alone, and will be cooking 3 meals a day for 40 people, rather than the usual 15-20. How can I make this bearable? What are some tips/tricks/shortcuts I can use to do as much as possible ahead of time, and maybe sneak in a nap here and there? More details inside. What will freeze well?

Ok so details: Usually a deck worker, but because of my job history I've been assigned to work as a cook on my vessel. I usually cook for about 15-20 people per meal, per day. Meals are at 0530, 1130, and 1730 (530 pm). It's a long day, but tolerable.Now we are about to have 40 people onboard for me to cook for and I'm a bit worried. There are supposed to be two of us for this number of people, but budget cutbacks have hit us hard, so I will be the only one. I'm also limited by the size of my galley: I have a 6 burner electric stove, an oven that will fit 3 sheet pans, a two basket deep fryer, a microwave, a couple electric griddles, a rice cooker, and a 4 hotel pan sized steam table. no broiler, no hotbox. Breakfast I think I'm ok with, although any tips and tricks with that for a crowd the size I am dealing with are appreciated, as I don't have much of a breakfast background. Obviously things like eggs to order are out of the question. Lunch and dinner (lunch being the main meal, as it is the shift change) are generally supposed to be two meats, two starches, and two veg, although that's a loose guide. I guess what I'm asking for is tips on doing things ahead of time, doing things in large quantities, foods I can cook in the oven while I nap (it's a 16 hour day, 7 days a week) ways to streamline prep, approximate quantities for 40 hungry sailors, etc. I don't really need recipes (although advice on meals that will freeze and reheat well would be awesome), more like advice on how to deal with this many people with the equipment I have. Sorry about the crappy formatting, I'm typing this on my phone. Thanks for any advice.
Edit: I was a professional cook for over 15 years, but pretty new to this format (cafeteria style, rather than restaurant style).
posted by holybagel to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Chili. Meat stews. Vats of oatmeal for breakfast. Sysco makes some frozen fried chicken and Mac-cheesy products that are plug and play and quite yummy considering they are frozen. Get big cans of fruit cocktail for breakfast and lunch. See if you can get 3 or 4 slow cooker/crock pots. Without knowing how much dry and cold storage you have, and how often you can get deliveries...quite a task. Mashed potato. Haricot vert (probably also available in surprisingly good frozen form- the fake shit gets better all the time!).

They are really giving you a hell of a first crack at it. Please let us know how it goes, and where the boat goes.
posted by vrakatar at 12:29 AM on May 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

Lunch: Chicken salad tuna salad salmon salad on toasted hot dog buns with a side of veggie slaw.
posted by vrakatar at 12:31 AM on May 17, 2015

strictly an amateur here, but I regularly cook for up to 80 on week-long-ish retreats. in fact, I'll be menu-planning again tomorrow. 'sufficiency' is what you are shooting for. All pastas, rice, and bread can be pre-made. Breakfast can be a la carte (oatmeal, yogurt, scrambled eggs...) As you know from your professional experience, prepping fresh vegetables and meat is a brutal time-suck. Really, anything with sustained knife-work is going to be long and exhausting: if you can catch a rhythm, do those bits after breakfast. I try to limit the actual cooking time to 120 minutes prior to service. You *can* get a break by doing baked dishes, but only if the ovens are reliable: lasagna, other pasta-bake; roasted chicken (cooks fast if parted); roasted root veggies can be great and filling.

As mentioned above, you can really get great mileage out of soups, stews, and chilis.
posted by j_curiouser at 12:46 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Breakfast casseroles, bread puddings, and frittatas that can be baked can save breakfast prep time and maybe allow for you to do a bit of lunch prep at breakfast.

A few pressure cookers could also make quick work of dishes requiring longer cook times.
posted by quince at 5:24 AM on May 17, 2015

Don't be afraid of making breakfast repetitive. Scrambled egg mix, etc. Make breakfast prep something automatic for yourself by having the same thing 9 out of 10 days. Leaves you time to concentrate on the other two meals...
posted by kuanes at 5:31 AM on May 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Cook all the bacon for the week at once. It can be re-crisped before serving.
Home fries (hash browns) can be prepared the night before, cooked until done, and then crisped the next morning. Use butter in them so you don't get a greasy feel or flavor. Add bell peppers, because it's classy.

Casseroles are your friend. Chicken and spaghetti casserole can easily be made in huge batches and it freezes well. Message me if you need the recipe.

Sloppy Joes are great because the longer it simmers, the better it tastes. Throw in the trinity (bell pepper, celery, onions) for a better flavor. You can use leftover sloppy joe for a meat sauce in lasagna or on pasta.

Aim for pure, clean food as much as possible. It's easier on you and gives the food sensitive more of a selection. Cooked corn with nothing special in it, steamed veggies, that sort of thing. The simple meals are the winners here.
posted by myselfasme at 7:21 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Frozen chopped onions, peppers, peas, are your friends. Add one or two of the three to everything.

Besides the obvious, I recommend getting sauces done ahead of time. Get the vats of honey mustard, bbq, French dressing, sriacha, and be able to mix a few together for a quick marinade for your oven roasted chicken breasts.

I would just do a meat in the oven, frozen heated veggies, bread and a potato every day for dinner. Sandwiches and apples and salad for lunch. The more a la cart items for all meals, the better prepared you'll look. Have fruit available every meal, yogurt, peanut butter and jelly.

Try to have a way to mix it up halfway through the trip, with a surprise new sauce or dessert, or something. And have an amazing dinner one time that everyone can anchor on, like the one day you do steak or salmon.
posted by bbqturtle at 8:53 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

This thread from eGullet has some helpful suggestions:
Dinner for 40
posted by Daily Alice at 10:10 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not to be negative or anything, but this sounds impossible to me, logistically, all by yourself. Unless you're just the food cooker. Budget cuts, eh? Well they're going to have to spread it around a little. How many non-skilled people can you get the XO/mate, whatever you call 'em to give you as assistants each day?

On the submarine, typically the cooks would have a pre-planned menu for 14 or 21 days and just plan on repeating that over and over. By yourself, maybe you could just do 7 days repeating. At night, the Jack of the Dust would break out the stuff for the next day and put it in the pantry, and the night baker would bake all the bread, plus cake or cookies or whatever. During the day the cook would direct the cooking, but each division on the ship had to provide a certain number of people to be assistants for prep, serving, and clean-up.

Some things we (the crew) enjoyed and seemed convenient for the cooks:
Breakfast - a waffle iron out on the mess deck, with a pitcher of pre-made waffle mix. Make your own. Always a big thing of either oatmeal, farina, or grits, and a thing of scrambled eggs. They'd have one cook doing eggs to order, but with the expectation that he can only work as fast as he can work. Only the people willing to wait would go for that.

Lunch - put out bread and PB&J for people not into it or in a hurry. (not as the only thing, though, of course.) Chili dogs seemed like a fairly simple crowd-pleaser for a meal. Sloppy joes, same.

Our guys would put out as much packaged self-serve stuff as possible. The little cereal boxes, pop-tarts, etc. They'd also try to keep something out all the time between meals like PB&J or hot dogs.
posted by ctmf at 10:20 AM on May 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here's a chart of estimates of food amounts for big parties based on average serving sizes. (But if I were a hungry sailor, I'd probably hope for at least 10-12 oz of meat per meal; say it's 12 oz, that's ~30 lbs cooked, obviously uncooked weight depends on the meat and method.)

I think in your shoes, I might want to be doing a lot of roasted beef and pork (do you have/can you get roasting pans?), maybe meatloaf, and stews, chilis, sloppy jos. For sides, probably rice or fries, maybe boiled new potatoes (with butter). I don't know about mashed potatoes, unless they're prefab - mashing for 40 people is asking for a rotator cuff injury, imo. Would do steamed veg (from frozen). Good luck.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:27 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Let me elaborate a little. My mess area has various packaged snacks, cereal, and hot pockets and stuff available. I am indeed the only one, no galley hands or anything. I'm foreseeing a lot of roasts, rice and beans, and things of that nature. Prepare sandwiches are probably not gonna happen, as making 80 sandwiches ahead of time is just unreasonable given my time and space constraints. I have all the gear I need (roasting pans, stock pots etc) but just the listed cooking equipment. Pressure cookers are never gonna happen; too much of a fire hazard. if I beat a bunch of eggs (6 dozen or so) will they keep overnight in a cooler so I don't have to do it in the morning? And yeah, budget cuts. The low price of oil isn't good for everyone. This is why unions are important, so you don't get screwed into doing two peoples jobs for one persons day rate...
posted by holybagel at 10:45 AM on May 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yup, properly stored beaten eggs are good in the fridge for 2-4 days. (Wait, when you say "cooler", do you mean an actual cooler? I don't know about that.)

Sorry, re rotator cuff etc - I know you'll have to be efficient and move quickly, but it's really worth thinking through how to position yourself / use your space to prevent repetitive strain injuries. (E.g., I'm getting over a shoulder thing, which is why I thought of that, and using lower surfaces - at just above my hips - has helped reduce pain for things like chopping and mixing.) Keep knives sharp, etc. It's mind-boggling that this situation is considered safe. It really isn't. (No chance of even just mentioning this as a concern?)
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:08 AM on May 17, 2015

Best answer: you can grill chicken breasts part way, cool them, tile them in pans to cook to temp later. same with steak, pork chops. cook off your pasta and oil it and cool it for later. you can cook off rice in the oven or the rice cooker, use it for a meal, and re-use it later for rice pudding or fried rice. eggs will hold if you break a bunch and leave them overnight. most scrambled eggs in restaurants have citric acid added and are from a bag so they don't turn green while holding. i am not the hugest fan of bag-o-eggs but it is incredibly helpful when you don't have time for that beez. many muffin batters are okay being in a fridge for a couple days. you can make dry mixes for pancakes and waffles ahead of time so you only need to add oil/eggs/bmilk or whatnot. of course you can soak your beans overnight, keep peeled potatoes in acidulated water.

you can make all sorts of yummy casserole and mac and cheese - casseroles hold AND freeze well. you can make pot pie in a hotel pan, or shepherd's pie...

frittatas are a good breakfast item because you can make them in hotel pans and put a lot of random delicious stuff in them.

hope my random thoughts are helpful :)
posted by quiteliterally at 12:19 PM on May 17, 2015

Response by poster: Further elaboration: I have fairly ample refrigeration (walk-in and upright) and freezer space. Food safety is not an issue.
posted by holybagel at 12:31 PM on May 17, 2015

Response by poster: Also cotton dress sock: this is all sorts of illegal accrording to USCG and STCW regs but it's how the industry goes. If the money wasn't triple what I could be making at a land job I'd be a total whistleblower.

Thread sit over. Thanks all.
posted by holybagel at 12:37 PM on May 17, 2015

I'd make lots of one-pot meals, like jambalaya, red beans and rice, kapsa (chicken & rice dish), and different Indian & Thai curries.
I'd make spicier foods for lunch, then milder foods for dinner, like stews - mostly bc I love stews, but not at lunch time. *shrugs*
Any veggies required for the above can be purchased frozen and pre-chopped.
Best of luck to you!
posted by Neekee at 1:11 PM on May 17, 2015

Best answer: A few thoughts from a retired sailor, although USN not merchant. But I do have experience on USNS merchant ships so I feel I know a little bit about what you are going through:

1. If you are the only one cooking, and you can't even get a few nonskilled assistants, don't make too much from scratch. Hit that Sysco chandler up for prepared breads, pies, chicken breasts, everything. If you do cook from scratch, have a backup plan for when your entrees run out. You can reheat breaded chicken breasts with a marinara sauce in a minute or two and most people will be happy.
2. Sandwiches are doable for lunch-- you just shift the work of preparation out to the diner. Set up a sandwich spread-- a buffet where they make their own sandwiches. Same deal for midrats, if your ship offers that meal. Augment with single serving bags of chips, premade soups you didn't have to cook, etc. Your key to sucess in this job is that you replace the work of your nonexistent assistant with premade items, and disposable flatware as often as you can get away with it. If your budget won't stretch to a lot of premade foods, you are probably going to be in trouble.
3. No matter what, don't neglect your coffee. Even if you don't drink, I am betting most of the crew will.
4. If your cooking experience is on land, and you are coming in from a deck rate, there are a few important sailor skills you are missing that are critical to working in a galley. Critical like not knowing them will put everyone's lives in danger. You need to get training on the specialized fire-fighting skills that maritime cooks need to have. How to deal with grease fires, and most importantly, how to operate your version of whatever type of Gaylord ventilation system you have. It is actually criminally negligent for you to be placed in this position and not have this training-- I hope you already have. If not, at a minimum someone from engineering can tell you what you need to know.
5. You definitely need a rotating meal plan, as others have mentioned.
6. You might find some tips here, although it looks to be focused more on small-boat galleys.

Good luck!
posted by seasparrow at 1:15 PM on May 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers everyone. Just re: Fire safety, I have taken multiple firefighting courses for both STCW and for my AB ticket. So no worries that some moron deckie is setting a galley alight.
posted by holybagel at 6:33 PM on May 17, 2015

Absolutely ridiculous that you can't at least get some sort of scheduled kitchenhand. However, if you are a friendly person, people will probably offer to help, especially if they know you're shorthanded. Is there a way to solicit volunteers? Do so. (unless you're a grump who doesn't like untrained people in your kitchen). You're also more likely to get hired back if you do a good job of improving the ship's community, and being a pleasant person can offset repetitive food.

The oven sounds small. I think you'll struggle to get a main course for 20, let alone 40 in there. So you're probably looking at least half the meat on the stove. Jacket potatoes are crazy easy in the oven, though they'll use all the space. Sausages in the oven for breakfast are easy. Both of these can sit in the bainmarie for a fairly long time. You can also fry eggs in the oven.
posted by kjs4 at 7:24 PM on May 19, 2015

Response by poster: So just an update, I did it. It sucked but I got through it, and also managed to not set my galley alight. I also told the higher ups that if I get back to Alaska in July and there isn't another cook that I'm turning around and flying back home. And I meant it.
posted by holybagel at 4:51 AM on June 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

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