We recently sat down with Celebrity Reflection's Executive Chef, Steve van der Merwe, and asked him the questions that we've all had on our minds. Have a look at his responses and find out what kind of culinary experience you can expect on our latest ship. Plus, learn how Steve discovered his passion for cooking.
What can we expect from the Main Dining Room on Reflection?
From the breathtaking, two-story wine cellar to the beautiful chandelier, the main dining room feels warm and welcoming. This, coupled with unparalleled service from our waiters and Sommeliers, as well as world-class food and flavors, will welcome you into a truly unforgettable culinary experience. Celebrity Reflection’s main dining room is fittingly named “Opus,” which means “work of art on a grand scale.” The room itself is like a work of art, as are each of the thousands of meals we will serve there each day.
Are there updates being made to the menu items offered?
Our culinary team has added 80 new dishes to the main dining room menu. Our goal is to take our guests on a culinary journey and to help make their vacation memorable. At the heart of the changes is a focus on beautiful simplicity, the center of the plate. Of course, we have also taken nutritional and dietary considerations into account – our guests care about what they eat and where it comes from. Overall, we have kept some favorites, but also added new flavors and dishes from around the world.
Where do you source the staff that will open the ship?
We have an exceptional core team in key supervisory and managerial positions that have opened many of our new ships (some have even been with us for all five Solstice Class launches, including this one, and some have been on our Millennium Class ships, as well). These form the foundation of our core opening team. We, then, divide the crewmembers across the fleet, some with opening experience and some without. We also see new ship launches as an opportunity to bring new crew members to the Celebrity team.
How long do you take to prepare the room for the first serving?
The dining room is set before each and every dining time. We can turn the entire dining room around in under 45 minutes between the first and second seatings.
What are the fun things your team prepares for the guests?
We’re all passionate about cooking. It makes the job inherently fun. Of course, some aspects of our jobs are more interactive, which adds an extra layer of enjoyment. When we do live cooking in our Oceaniew Café, for example, our cooks get to interact with our guests throughout the day as they prepare anything from fresh eggs to tasty stir-fries, with the guests watching, learning, and talking to them. Then, there is the Lawn Club Grill, where the guests can experience hands-on cooking next to their very own chef, with endless views of the sea all around. It’s pretty special. I can’t forget all of our cooking demonstrations, and our very own “star chefs” competition, where guests get to compete against each other on stage in front of a live audience. It’s great fun, and many laughs are had by all.
How many meals are prepared each night?
On average, around 4,500 meals are served for dinner. This includes our very important crew; they have their own dining area, as well. Celebrity Reflection will produce, on average, just over 14,000 meals per day.
How many chefs are in the kitchen?
On Reflection, we have a total brigade of 166. They are divided into various positions, as well, and are easily identified by different color neckerchiefs. Yellow neckerchiefs represent the junior positions, which are the 4th and 3rd cooks. Next, there are red neckerchiefs, which are 2nd cooks, followed by green neckerchiefs, which are our 1st cooks. The next highest position is the chefs de parties, who wear blue; these are the first of the supervisory positions. Next, we have our junior sous and sous chefs; they each have a black neckerchief with a silver toggle. The executive sous chefs are next in the ranking, wearing black neckerchiefs with a gold toggle. The executive chef is the only person in the culinary department that does not wear a neckerchief.
What are your favorite dishes on the menu to prepare and to eat? Also, can you tell us a little about yourself? For example, who cooks at your house?
I enjoy braising and roasting meats. Prime rib is an all-time favorite of mine, and of course, braised short ribs, too. I enjoy eating these dishes as much as I enjoy preparing them. When at home, I like to cook for my loved ones and friends. I’ve noticed, though, that there is never really anyone wanting to rally to the kitchen. I must be doing something right at home I guess, since they want to leave the cooking to me.
I started my career in a takeout pizza joint by the local neighborhood pool in South Africa. It’s simple: I fell in love with preparing food and working with people. The rest, as they say, is history!
When at home, what do you like to eat? How did you become interested in becoming a chef?
I enjoy making pizza back home in South Africa, in my wood-burning pizza oven. I love to eat braai (South African barbecue) and enjoy cooking it just as much. I enjoy cooking food when it becomes a social event; cooking pizza and barbequing brings people into the whole experience of preparing food. Sometimes, they will even want to get involved and help. If they’re lucky, I’ll let them in on a few tricks I have up my sleeve. Nothing brings people together better than great food, good company and good wine. My Gran always cooked good food and I guess this is where it all started. Of course, nobody can beat Mom’s cooking, either.
Where were you trained? What was your first chef job?
I trained in South Africa at a major hotel chain. I started off working during my school holidays for free, just to learn and to understand what it meant to work as a chef. I was then offered a part-time job at the same hotel. As a result of my hard work and dedication, the company offered to pay for my studies and I took on an apprenticeship with the company. This entailed working and studying at the same time. We had to complete weekly assignments and then, once a year, we had the opportunity of attending a hotel school where we got into the theoretical side of things – learning about wine, marketing, accounting, industrial law, etc. My first assigned position as a qualified chef was to run the room service section of a small five-star hotel in Umhglana Rocks in Natal.
How many refrigerators are in the kitchen to hold all the ingredients?
In total, there are over 350 refrigerators onboard Celebrity Reflection. This is for food only and does not include bar refrigerators or even the housekeeping pantries.
What’s the best compliment you ever received about your cooking?
That is a difficult one. I guess I’ve been most honored when a guest asks for the recipe for a particular dish. It means that they would like to take that dish home with them and share it with loved ones, or perhaps even relive the memory. I cannot say that there is one specific compliment that stands out, but asking for the recipe… I think that’s up at the top!
How is it prepping for brunch as opposed to prepping for dinner?
Brunch is an event for us, when we transform our dining room into a culinary showcase. We have so much talent onboard, and this is a chance to show some different aspects of that, like ice, fruit and vegetable carvings. Our chefs love the interactive experience with guests when working at the live stations for eggs, omelets and crepes. And of course, the chocolate fountains with freshly prepared fruits make everyone smile! Prepping for dinner requires all hands on deck. The culinary team has to work together to achieve the highest quality of food for our guests. The main dining room has two seatings, and we cater to approximately 1,300 guests per seating. The balance is made up with guests dining in one of the many specialty restaurants onboard.
What’s the most surprising thing you have learned as a chef?
Clean as you go!!
Can you share a favorite recipe we can publish?
It’s a simple burger, and it reminds me so much of home. It even requires you to grill it – one of my truly favorite pastimes.
Braaied Boerewors Burgers
Chef Steve van der Merwe, South Africa
Corporate Executive Chef, Celebrity Cruises
• 1 lb lean ground beef
• 1 lb ground pork
• 2 teaspoon coriander seeds, roasted, pounded and sieved
• ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
• ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
• ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
• 1 teaspoon brown sugar
• 1 tablespoon malt vinegar
• Sea salt and freshly milled black pepper
• 6 slices cheese (cheddar or Jarlsberg)
• 6 hamburger rolls
• Shredded crispy lettuce, sliced tomatoes, gherkins, mayonnaise and chutney
1. In a large bowl, mix together the ground beef and ground pork, the coriander seeds, ground cloves, ground nutmeg, sea salt, and freshly milled black pepper until well combined.
2. Using a scale, divide the mixture evenly into 6 portions – each should be about 7 oz. in weight. Form into patties about the size of the rolls. If you are going to braai them (barbecue them over charcoal), put the burgers directly above the white coals and turn them every 30 seconds until the patties are cooked. There should be no pink juice running out of them.
3. Just before they are done, place a slice of cheese on top of each patty and allow it to melt.
4. Toast the rolls lightly. Place the patties in the toasted rolls and garnish with the lettuce, tomato, gherkins, and chutney.
What chefs inspired you?
That’s a tough one. I guess the chef that has always inspired me is the first executive chef I worked with. He helped build the foundation of my culinary experience. I even recall occasionally having a little competition to see who could de-bone a leg of lamb the fastest. Strangely, I could never beat him.
Favorite food to cook with?
I enjoy cooking all kinds of meats, but most of all the wild game that we have in South Africa, such as springbok, wild boar, kudu, etc.
What’s a typical day in the life of an executive chef?
A typical day onboard starts at around 7 a.m., with a walk through all the outlets that are open for breakfast. The executive chef will check with the sous chefs to find out whether there were any challenges during the night shift. After a food-and-beverage department meeting in the morning, the chef will conduct a meeting with the team of chefs, to brief them on changes and to discuss the upcoming day’s events. An inspection of all the store rooms will also be done, together with the provisions master, to stay on top of the status of provisions. The executive chef is also a personality onboard, interacting with guests and hosting a variety of cooking demonstrations and events throughout the voyage. The executive chef also will conduct various tastings in all outlets to ensure the quality of the product is at the highest standards. The chef’s responsibilities are not only limited to food, but also include safety, which is of critical importance – the safety of our guests and crew, and, of course, food safety, too.
The executive chef on our ships is like the conductor of a finely orchestrated symphony, ensuring that all the pieces and parts flow together harmoniously, resulting in the service of delectable, made-from-scratch cuisine that helps make our guests’ vacations unforgettable. It’s simple, really. It’s what modern luxury is all about.