Masala dosa on QE2? Well, why not? Chef Vinod Kumar, executive chef, Old Lighthouse Bristow hotel, Fort Kochi who was formerly chef at all the three luxury liners of Cunard Lines, QE2, Queen Mary and Queen Victoria, along with two other Indian chefs, can take credit for introducing Indian cuisine on the posh luxury liner.
“When I joined the cruise liner (QE2), a decade ago, there was no Indian cuisine on the ship. Once when we Indian chefs cooked chicken curry and shared with our colleagues, it was an instant hit. After that we were asked to introduce Indian food on the menu. Today Lido, a restaurant on Queen Mary, serves Indian cuisine on one day of the week and it is most popular with the guests.
Cooking for large numbers, running into thousands, comes easy to chef after his experiences aboard these culinary behemoths, these sailing kitchens, cooking for the globetrotters from around the world and running multi-cuisine restaurants all on the high seas.
Hailing from Kottayam, he recalls that after completing a catering course he ventured joining the luxury liner. Nervous and unsure about his new life he reached New York and was escorted to this beautiful ship. “There were two other Indian chefs aboard and both were Malayalis. But we were a minority and faced the teething troubles of settling down.” The problems being homesickness and having to eat only continental food! But the three chefs soon were noticed for their good and hard work, which got them the license to cook their own cuisine. The Indian food (chicken curry) which they made and shared with their colleagues soon landed them with a request to introduce the dish in the restaurants on the liner.
His experiences on the ships have been very rewarding, he says, having learnt the importance of punctuality and a systematic way of doing things.
“Otherwise it will not be possible to serve the guests with the different cuisines of the world, at anytime they wish,” he says informing that the kitchen aboard these ships is totally mechanized.
The work is non-stop and the activities in the kitchen begin very early. The fact that no guest is refused any order due to unavailability of an ingredient makes the kitchen process to be almost fool proof. “We even get fresh curry leaves!” says the soft- spoken chef with a disarming smile.
The ship (QE2), which now stands as a museum in Dubai used to sail the Trans-Atlantic route and do round- the- world trips between January and April. Kochi was its port of call then. Out of the 1,250 crew members110 were chefs.
Vinod gained huge experience when he worked in a start-up kitchen aboard both Queen Mary and Queen Victoria. “It is like opening a new hotel after which it has to go on auto-pilot,” But to make it so requires planning and hard work, because “it has to begin from scratch.”
Looking back on his initial days when he was swamped by home and sea sickness, Vinod says that they were gently initiated into settling down. They were asked to ensure the safety of their property which meant that when the ship hit a rough patch, and the pitch and roll grew intense, then they had to chain the pots on the stove, lest it fall and spill. Bottles, pans, pots were all secured but the cooking continued.
Vinod’s narrative about his days on the ship makes interesting listening. He tells us about a passenger, Beatrice Mullar from New Jersey, who donated her entire property to Cunard Lines, after she was overwhelmed by the hospitality of the staff who tended to her ailing husband before he passed away at sea. She now has a permanent cabin on Queen Mary, in a return gesture.
He remembers a lady passenger who was completing an unfinished journey that she undertook as a seven-month-old baby in the ill fated Titanic. She was completing it at 87!
Armed with his culinary skills and a deep interest in ships and tales of the sea, Vinod has penned a book in Malayalam, ‘The Titanic, An epic Tragedy. “History interests me. I have compiled the narratives heard and read and the souvenirs seen at the museums enroute the shipping lane that remained Titanic’s incomplete journey.” Vinod was awarded the ‘Star of the Month’ for August 2008, title aboard the Queen Victoria. Photography and vegetable carving are his other two interests and this creative chef happy taking cookery classes and demonstrations at clubs.
At Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel Vinod uses his cookery expertise and hospitality training to give the guests an unforgettable experience. As the ships that sail past the beautiful heritage hotel remind him constantly of the happy days he spent cooking on the high seas.