These days, Kirsten Redelinghuys teaches culinary arts, specialising in pastry, at The International Hotel School Durban campus. But a few years back, she was travelling the world on a first class cruise liner, catering to travellers from around the globe. Kirsten tells us more about what life was like on a ship…
Q: What made you decide to study to be a chef?
Honestly, I wanted to do horticulture at UCT but my mom said I should find something more practical to do. We moved to Durban and considering my second love was food, the next thing I knew I was at the Royal Hotel enrolling to become a chef!
Q: Did your studies prepare you for the working world?
I feel you learn valuable life lessons doing internship training as I did, and not always the lessons you would expect to learn studying culinary arts. I don’t really remember much of what I learnt in the beginning food-wise but the basics are still there, and once you know the basics the rest is easy. What I feel I did learn the most was to multi-task and make do with what resources you have – no kitchen is perfect; “when in doubt, make a plan”.
Q: What made you want to work on a cruise ship?
I had aspirations of traveling; I wanted to go out and see the world and gain some independence from my parents. I heard they paid well, and couldn’t have asked for more –getting paid to see the world.
Cunard used to come to the Royal Hotel and recruit the management students, and one day I asked why they didn’t take chefs. The response was no chefs had applied, so I applied! It took a while but eventually a position opened up – Demi Chef Departi in the pastry kitchen of Cunard Cruise Lines, Queen Elizabeth II.
Q: What surprised you most about cruise liner life?
The different rules of etiquette. I quickly found out that ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are not a prerequisite in some cultures.
Q: Was it difficult to live and work with people from so many countries and cultures?
Yes and no, it’s certainly a learning curve and that has been the one major lesson I have taken away with me – not everyone is the same and learning how to relate to various cultures and nationalities, no textbook can teach you that.
Q: What was it like arriving at your first destination ever?
It was amazing. I think we went to New York on a five-day transatlantic, so there were five days of build up to our first destination. Having never been out of South Africa before, it really was awesome. I remember standing on the deck of the ship coming into New York harbour, straining to see the Statue of Liberty (she is really small) with the sun rising over the harbour. You would have to experience it, but it really takes your breath away.
Q: You must have seen some great places? Which was your favorite?
Amazing places, great is not the word. By far my favorite was Tahiti. While working in the UK after having left the QE2, I googled cheap flights to Tahiti – it was something like R30,000 just in flights – and to think I had gotten paid to go there!
Q: Is working on a cruise ship really so demanding? Did you have some time to have fun?
Yes, it really is that hard and demanding, but depending on your ship and team in the kitchen, you do get some time off. I was really lucky as I worked with a Hungarian chef who had been around the world countless times and he only wanted to get off in certain ports, so I got to see a lot during the world cruises.
Q: What was a typical day like?
Wake up 6.30am, be at work by 7am (if you were late you lost any time off you may have been given), prepare for lunch till 10.30am, break till 12pm, lunch service usually 12.30 until whenever the last guest has been served (usually 3pm), break till 5pm, dinner service from 5.30pm till whenever the last guest is served (usually 11pm).
If entering an American port the following day, we generally ended up cleaning till 1am, then a bit of social in the crew bar till the early hours of the morning, catch a few hours sleep, and start all over again. You learn the Japanese art of power-napping during the day very quickly!
Q: The pros and cons of the job?
Certainly the travel – you don’t get to see the whole country when you dock, but I now have a very good idea as to which countries I would like to see more of. There’s quite a good financial benefit to where we were; not making millions, but I did get to save a lot as most of your living expenses are paid for. Although as much as I saved I did spend some of it too. Another plus are the amazing people you meet from all over the world and the super strong friendships that are formed.
The working contracts are quite long – most are six months at a time, and some may complain about the hours, but the motto stands: “work hard and play hard”. Luggage allowance on your flight home after your six month contract is only 45 kg, which is far too little!
Q: Advice for young people interested in a cruise job as a chef?
You need to have passion and love of food, no-one can teach you that. They should be a people’s person and of course goes without saying be hard working. It’s really tough but also really rewarding. Work as hard as you can and it will pay off in the long run. Independent and confident also would be qualities I would suggest.
Q: Was working on a cruise ship a worthwhile experience?
Very, I still believe to this day that I would not be the person I am today career-wise and personality-wise if I hadn’t taken that leap of faith so many years ago.
Q: Do you love what you do now?
I love seeing where my students end up and knowing that when they succeed, that I had a part in some way to play in their success, no matter how small.
Q: Your top 3 tips for those looking for jobs on cruise ships?
- Experience. Most ships are looking for chefs with experience, so get the best you can and as much of it as you can, and work hard in whichever position you are in at the moment.
- Persistence. There aren’t that many recruitment agents who deal with cruise ships so contact the managing company direct and keep trying till they respond.
- Mommy can’t help you. Take responsibility for your career and life, and cut those apron strings. Tie your own!
Q: Your motto for life?
When in doubt, google!