Meet the Chef
When you first meet Chef Robert Steel with his twinkling blue eyes and rosy cheeks, it’s easy to imagine him as a small boy cooking breakfast for his parents. When he begins to tell you about his humble beginnings, his eyes light up, still reflecting the enthusiasm of a seven year old English lad chopping, cooking and experimenting with food in the early morning hours.
“I always loved food,” he said. “I loved to eat it and I loved to experiment.” He continued with a smile, “I’ve always been interested in food.”
Young Robert’s career path was inevitable. With his early love of cooking, it was only a matter of time until he enrolled in the hotel school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. After two years of study and armed with his diploma, Robert, now twenty-two, was ready to begin his professional culinary career.
A culinary career doesn’t always begin as planned
Steel’s vision for employment was at the prestigious Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel, nestled on the shores of Lake Ullswater. But when he applied for a job to put his new skills to use, the only job available in the kitchen was a pot washer. Undaunted, he took the job. Determination prevailed and one month later, he was the new apprentice chef in this Michelin-starred restaurant.
After four years of his apprenticeship at Sharrow Bay, Robert Steel headed out to sea aboard Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2. Within six years, Steel held the esteemed position of Chef de Cuisine. But terra firma beckoned and he “did some restaurant work back home.” “I went to London as well and then I wanted to get back to sea.” Soon he was aboard the sailing ships of Windstar – 150 passenger vessels. Shortly after that, Robert Steel moved over to sister line, Holland America, and he has never looked back.
All of this I learned while sitting across from Steel at a beautifully set table in the Pinnacle Grill restaurant. We were aboard Holland America’s Eurodam heading for the sunny eastern Caribbean. A far cry from the hotel’s pot and dish wash area where his career began. So how did Robert Steel end up on this fabulous cruise ship in command over a staff of ninety and infinite responsibilities?
The cruise chef experience
What’s it like to be an Executive Chef on a cruise ship? To begin with there is not only one dining room to supervise; there are several. Chef Steel is constantly on the move. Whether it is supervising his staff, creating new recipes, jockeying from one dining venue to another, Steel is always keeping a watchful eye on his domain. Late night food galas? He’s there. Poolside party buffets? Steel’s standing by. This includes the new Culinary Art Center. Someone has to oversee the demonstrations, hands-on enrichment experiences and accommodate the celebrity guest chefs.
This raised an interesting question: how do you coordinate all the details of having guest chefs doing cooking demonstrations? Chef Steel has it all figured out. “Two or three months beforehand, they send me their menus. I make sure we can work with what is on the menu; make sure everything is ordered.”
And if something happens or you can’t get a specific item? “We pretty much take ourselves to the supermarket in port. All chefs are very particular. If you don’t have the ingredients, then you can forget it.” Somehow I don’t think that would ever happen in Chef Steel’s galley.
Up close and personal
As we neared the end of the interview, it was time for more “personal” questions. First on my list was to ask about his favorite type of cuisine. To which he quickly replied, “I’ve always had a love of Asian food. All the different spices and herbs and flavors. When you get the right balance, the sweet, the salty…you have the spices and on top of that you have the herbs. When you have all these flavors together, your mouth is like, wow! All the different flavors just exploding.”
Chef Steel explained that his favorite Asian food was from Thailand. He’s been to Thailand and loves to visit the local markets, buying all sorts of fragrant herbs and colorful spices. He then finds a kitchen and combines then to make his own secret blends.
Being an Executive Chef aboard a cruise ship and responsible for over 10,000 meals a day, must be an immense challenge every day. But the rewards are huge. Passenger comment cards consistently applaud the cuisine. Chef Steel has honed his talent, organizational skills and creativity to successfully manage every aspect of his ship’s culinary division. I look forward to stepping aboard another Holland America ship and find Robert Steel underneath the proverbial chef’s hat.