Diary of a Some-Time Cruisaholic and her Cruise Shy Husband
(Part 2. Food and Fun)
Ask anyone to talk about their experiences aboard a cruise ship, and the answer will boil down to two components: food and fun. In both these areas, Holland America Westerdam excelled. From a Gala Night dinner menu featuring jumbo shrimp cocktail and fillet mignon with lobster tail to the tempting variety of sushi served every lunch time on the Lido deck, the Westerdam offered an endless stream of expertly prepared, beautifully presented foods. She also offered passengers enough activities, games lectures musical performances and special events to keep boredom at bay.
Simon, Otto and I barely scratched the surface of available options for fun and entertainment. And we spent far less time napping than we had expected during the first part of our cruise. A schedule for the following day called “When and Where” awaited us every evening upon our return from dinner. Here are some of the edible and entertaining highlights from our eight days at sea aboard the Westerdam.
Food, Food and More Food
During our eight-day Atlantic crossing, America’s Test Kitchen – yes, the same one you see on TV – demonstrated recipes and techniques for preparing salmon, main dish salads and chocolaty goodness. The only one we managed to catch was the session on making Asian dumplings. And after watching the live demo and picking up the recipes, we decided this was definitely something we could do at home.
Passengers were invited to tour the galley on two occasions. We were divided into groups of 15, and escorted through the heart of Westerdam’s food area.
The galley is where everything, with the exception of quick-cooked dishes like stir-fries and burgers, are prepared. But every morsel of food – breads and baked goods, lemonade by the gallon, as well as menus for the Pinnacle Grill, room service and more – originates. We learned the galley area connected directly with the Pinnacle Grill, to insure the meat and seafood arrive fresh and hot. The galley even has a research area where, on the morning of our visit, was experimenting with whimsical marzipan shapes.
We entered the galley from the dining room. Down the right side were the prep stations – soup, meat, poultry, fish – and the executive chef’s tiny office. The left side was where dishwashing, in-room dining (room service) and pantry, cold galley, salad station, pastry/bakery, Pinnacle Galley and dishwashing were handled. The main galley lay behind these stations.
The entire area was spotless with copious amounts of shining stainless steel and vacuum packed food items everywhere.
We attended several Coffee Chats, morning informational discussions featuring several of the Westerdam’s officers. The first introduced us to Culinary Operations Manager, Wessel Van Oorschot and Executive Chef, Rolando (Orley) Obierna, who gave us the scoop on how to feed over 1,600 passengers, and make it look easy.
Each spoke for several minutes, then the floor was opened for questions. Here is some of what we learned:
- Fresh food is brought aboard at each port
- Foods either arrive frozen, and kept that way until needed, or grouped and stored at optimum temperatures to maintain freshness
- Keeping lettuce and berries at their peak can be a challenge by the last day of an ocean crossing
- Food is purchased directly from designated distributors – no middle man – insuring everything is as fresh as possible
- Leftover food is shredded and flushed overboard below the water line as fish food, or burned; all within strict environmental standards
- Menus are generate and posted through Holland America’s head office in order to maintain a high level of quality and consistency
- What’s on the menu depends largely upon where a particular Holland America ship is cruising
- Universally popular dishes such as prime rib, grilled salmon and turkey can always be found on the menu of a Holland America cruise ship
- Cooks and cooking stations are designated and kept separate for the preparation of meals for passengers with food allergies such as seafood, wheat and peanuts
- Because most of the crew is primarily Indonesian and Philippino, chefs from these countries cook for them, using familiar foods and spices, along with ubiquitous western dishes, so the crew can eat as well as they do at home
Meet Chef Orley
Rolando Obierna, called Orley by most, is a friendly fellow with a quick smile and strong work ethic. Add to this combination a genuine love for preparing high quality dishes, and you have the perfect recipe for Executive Chef aboard the Westerdam.
Orley started his career with Holland America in 1990, and worked his way up the culinary ladder. Today, Orley is responsible for all the meals prepared onboard for Westerdam’s passengers and crew.
Orley’s culinary career began at a five star hotel in Manilla in the Philippines. He joined Holland America in 1990. After several years with the cruise line, he was offered a promotion to sous chef, but felt he wasn’t ready. He wanted to take more time to learn and not have the embarrassment of having to ask his staff what to do. Orley accepted the offer eight years later in 2003. In 2006, Orley was promoted to second executive chef and six weeks later, on December 1, to executive chef. This was a major challenge because his big break came right at the start of the holiday cruise season.
Orley rose to the occasion. The cruise line was so pleased with the way he handled himself and the situation into which he had been thrown, Holland America made his position permanent.
Although the menus come down from the cruise line, Orley is master of his own galley, and is not micromanaged from above. He supervises the entire food preparation area, but never sits down to a meal. Because everything has to be tasted before it is served to passengers and crew, he is taking small bites of every dish all day long.
When back home in the Philippines, Orley enjoys preparing and eating fresh fish and seafood. “everyone can cook,” he insisted, “but what’s important is how it’s presented. It has to come from the heart.” Perhaps that’s why he sings while he cooks because his heart is happy.
Although Orley is a man of good humor, who strives to encourage the people working under him to take the time needed to produce stellar results, he admitted he hates to see people taking shortcuts. “I tell everyone, Don’t let me catch you taking shortcuts,” he said seriously. This, according to Orley, is the most common cooking mistake.
As a child, Orley always enjoyed helping his mother in the kitchen. One day, he cut his finger while chopping onions and wondered if he would still be allowed to help his mother. “One day,” she told him, “you will be a chef.” Orley still remembers this incident as the moment his destiny was sealed.
Fun, Fun and More Fun
In Part 1 of this 3-part series, I listed some of the activities available onboard the Westerdam, so I won’t repeat myself. I’ll simply tell you about some of the things Simon and I did when we weren’t working or napping.
While Simon enjoyed attending sessions on navigation, I became entranced by Vivianne Rowan’s lectures on all things ancient Egypt, including the pyramids, the discovery of the tomb of King Tutencarmen and the Valley’s of the Kings and Queens. Because the Westerdam was laid out in a logical and consistent pattern, once I knew if I was on the port or starboard side, it was relatively easy to figure out where I needed to go. The ship wasn’t difficult to learn, and there were always people around to point me in the right direction when Otto and I got lost. In other words, for me at least, independence was one of the best unexpected gifts of our cruise.
Simon enjoyed World Trivia, one of there types of trivia played onboard. While he was out of my hair, I could attempt to make a dent in my email, and do some research for future blog posts.
We didn’t take in too many of the nightly shows on the Main Stage, but the two comedians and the magician we did see kept us laughing. Also, there was music everywhere. from solo piano music to upbeat strains from the B.B King Blues Club, to soft rock tunes coming through the speakers at just the right volume, the music blended in perfectly with the pace of life aboard the Westerdam.
One of the most surprising events we attended was a talk on the history of Fabergé. This also included the world launch of the Antarctic egg – a crystal masterpiece decorated with gold and rubies, and gold penguins on silver ice as the treasure inside – and, of course, the opportunity to purchase pieces of exquisite eggs, men’s and women’s jewelry and watches.
Meet Nathan Hinojosa
All the fun aboard the Westerdam seemed to magically appear at just the right time, and in the right place. This, however is far from the reality of cruising. One of the key players in making things happen is the cruise director. On the Westerdam, it was Nathan Hinojosa who took on the role of making sure the passengers were having a good time.
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Nathan entered show business as a young man, entertaining at Six Flags. He did this for eight years, receiving mentoring from cruise line entertainers who worked at the park when they weren’t cruising. He also worked for the local Marriott where he gained some valuable hotel experience. Eventually, Nathan joined Holland America as a singer and dancer in onboard shows, and was recently promoted to cruise director.
On some cruise ships, the cruise director does everything related to keeping the passengers entertained and happy. On the Westerdam, the entertainment director handles the shows on the Main Stage, as well as any related aspects of on-board entertainment. The cruise director is the Westerdam’s face, as well as an advocate for the passengers. Nathan makes sure everyone is having a good time and is available to handle passengers’ concerns. He also hosts onboard events and MCs shows.
Nathan helps schedule everything from mass and other religious services to singles, service club and LGBT meet-ups. He told us a “contract” priest is available on every cruise. He gets room and board, and travels the world. Perhaps this is his way of getting a sneak preview of heaven.
As we began our crossing, we found even more delightful surprises that we had during our first five days. Here are just a few:
Images of paintings from the collection at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam sequentially displayed on a large screen in the guest services area
A menagerie of dozens of towel animals on the Lido Deck created by the housekeeping staff
Our waiter cracking the lobster tails on our plates, expertly extracting the succulent meat and removing the shells
Soft peppermints and pieces of candied ginger offered after dinner (I took the ginger back to our cabin, and with boiling water from room service, used it to make ginger tea)
A cocktail party for Holland America newbees
Daily sudoku and crossword puzzles on paper
The captain adjusting the position of the ship on two consecutive evenings so passengers on first the starboard, then the port sides of the ship could enjoy a spectacular sunset
Farewell to Westerdam
Our last day before Westerdam docked in Fort Lauderdale was bittersweet. Simon attended a lecture on navigation, while I listened to Vivianne wind up her week of presentations on ancient Egypt with a discussion of her second passion: the lives and music of Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley.
At lunch, where we indulged ourselves in sushi for the eighth and last time on the Lido Deck, we enjoyed the company of two of our dinner table mates, Kevin and Annie, as the Westerdam cruised along under a powder blue sky.
And so went our day. Time seemed to accelerate as our final dinner with Derek, Geri, Kevin and Annie, the best table mates on the planet, came and went. Another fine meal, conversation and laughter, serious discussion and lively banter, and finally, hugs and promises to stay in touch. We came from different states, backgrounds and experiences, but what cemented our little group was was the common ground we discovered. Perhaps, had we ventured into politics and religion, we may have found differences of opinion, but we were having far too much fun to get into either in any big way.
When the time came for us to disembark the next morning, the process was as organized and smooth as our crossing. Had it not been for a technical problem at customs, it would have gone like clockwork. As it turned out, we were only a few minutes behind schedule.
On dry land again, we headed for the airport. But the memories of our cruise aboard the Westerdam will last a lifetime. There’s nothing like a cruise to help you recharge your battery, learn a multitude of things you never knew and escape the craziness of the world we live in for a while.
Next week, I’ll fill you in on some of the behind-the-scenes activity that made cruising on the Westerdam safe and satisfying.
What are some of your favorite cruise memories? We hope you’ll share them in the comments.
Disclaimer: We would like to thank Holland America for generously offering us complimentary internet access. However, all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.