Great Lakes chefs keep crews happy with freighter fare
May 23, 2018 07:56AM ● Published by Editor
By Tanda Gmiter of mlive.com - May 23, 2018
GREAT LAKES - Steaks sizzling on an open-air grill against the rolling backdrop of Lake Superior. Delicate strawberry shortcakes stacked three biscuits high. A recipe from home carefully recreated below deck, just to make your week a little brighter.
Freighters that crisscross the Great Lakes carry more than 100 million tons of cargo each year. Keeping their hardworking crews happy has a lot to do with the talented chief stewards and cooks who keep a seemingly endless stream of meals, snacks and baked goods flowing from the galleys.
"They can eat 24 hours a day if they want to," said Aaron Griffin, chief steward aboard the 826-foot Lee A. Tregurtha, which is run by the Interlake Steamship Company. "You've got to keep them happy. That's the main part of my job is to keep the crew happy."
Think of a ship's galley and eating area as your favorite corner diner, where all the customers are regulars and they're all on a first-name basis. The cooks know just how everyone likes their burgers, which vegetables they'll eye for seconds, and even the late-night snacks a few are trying hard to avoid.
For the culinary creators who work on Interlake's fleet of nine Great Lakes ships, this juggling act is typically done on a schedule of 60 to 90 days on ship, and 30 days off.
Griffin, 57, a Toledo native, learned his way around the kitchen first by taking a home economics class in high school, then through six years as an Army cook and quartermaster. His resume was bolstered later by years in Ohio restaurants and country clubs.
He was working as a utility lineman more than a dozen years ago when he heard about the job on an Interlake freighter and saw it as a chance to get back into the kitchen.
Griffin admits the adjustment period was rough. During one of his early runs, he couldn't get a cell phone signal in the middle of Lake Michigan. Not being able to hear his wife's voice was nearly a deal-breaker.
"I couldn't talk to her for two days. I was ready to quit. But then once you get on other boats (and you can make calls) it makes all the difference."
He adapted quickly. He moved from second cook to a relief spot, filling in for other cooks on different boats. Griffin later became a chief steward, which is not only the head culinary position but also the person in charge of ordering supplies and overseeing all meal planning.
The heart of the job, he said, is treating the crew like he's cooking for family."It's different because you have 20 different tastes on a boat, and so you're not going to please everybody. It's never going to happen," he laughed.
"If you've been with these guys for a while, you know what they like and what they don't like. They're just like family."
A FLOATING RESTAURANT
On board ship, standard breakfast offerings include everything from pancakes and pastries to made-to-order omelettes. Lunch sees seven or eight different sandwich and salad choices. Dinner offers two entrees and lots of side dishes.
The crew always has access to snacks, cookies, fruit and chips - just like at home.
Chrissy Kadleck, a spokesperson for Interlake, said it's not unusual for new crew members to gain a few pounds when they come aboard. The Ohio-based shipping company moves close to 20 million tons of iron ore, stone and coal each year on the Great Lakes.
"The job of chief steward is often one of the most challenging on the boat. Having the right person in that position is critical because the galley is the heart of the ship, just like it is in our home kitchens," Kadleck said.
"We are lucky to have some of the best cooks on the Lakes. It's not unusual for people to say they want to work on our boats just for the freighter fare."
Each chef has a specialty. Griffin loves grilling on deck. He's known for his steaks, chops and thick-sliced beef jerky.
For Andy Jaworski, chief steward aboard Interlake's 767-foot Kaye E. Barker, it's scratch-made soups.
Earlier this month, he was stirring up a batch of chicken gumbo with rice, and talking excitedly about his upcoming break to see his daughter graduate from high school.
A former Navy quartermaster who cooked aboard aircraft carriers, Jaworski has now spent 27 years working on Interlake's ships.
"If you can tolerate the separation from your family, it's a good living," said Jaworski, 55.
Some of the perks? Sunsets and scenery from a freighter vantage point you can't see anywhere else. An appreciative group who loves what's coming out of your galley.
"If you don't have a good galley department, it hurts the morale of the boat," Jaworski said. "When I see them and they're quiet and busy eating, it makes me feel good."
Working on a ship sometimes means being at the mercy of Mother Nature. There were days earlier this year when ice had some of the ships stuck in Superior for days. You just keep whipping up good things for the crew and hope your supplies hold out, the chief stewards said.
Jaworski recalled one Christmas dinner 20 years ago when the weather got really dicey. "I splashed a lot of things on the floor," he remembers. "But I held down the important stuff."
Griffin said some meals have been a little late to the table when storms rock the ship, but everyone gets fed.
He draws the line, though, at cooking outdoors in sub-zero temperatures.
Lake Superior is not always the warmest place to stand over a grill. "You put on your long underwear and you go out and deal with it. But if it's below zero, it's not happening."
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