Sunday, October 17, 2021

Eat like a sailor: chief cook elevates dining at sea

  • June 16 2021
  • By Lois Ann Dort    

Barbecue grilled striploin steak, chicken jambalaya, beef stroganoff and cheese tortellini primavera: if you’re thinking this is a restaurant menu, you’d be wrong; these dishes are menu items, ones that can be found on the Canadian Coast Guard Service (CCGS) vessel Jean Goodwill.

Not exactly the hard tack sailors in the days of yore called supper. These meals – brought to the table by Sherbrooke native James Spears, chief cook on the 84m ice breaker – make life at sea a gourmet experience.

Now, thanks to a blog Spears started last March – Galley Porthole – landlubbers have access to CCGS Jean Goodwill menus and recipes to bring this gastronomic experience to their tables.

Spears has been a cook in various capacities and locations for decades. He started this kitchen journey as a youth at his aunt and uncle’s business, the Island View Restaurant in Spanish Ship Bay, later attending NSCC Strait Area campus, obtaining his Red Seal in the trade of cooking.

He’s worked in or on nine restaurants, 18 ships, four offshore rigs, three resource production camps, a hospital and a jail.

His most recent tenure with the Canadian Coast Guard started in 2016, where he’s most recently been on board the CCGS Jean Goodwill providing food service to a crew of 26.

Spears decided to start the cooking blog as a repository of recipes, where the many requests he receives for recipes can be directed. And, he said, it helps him “to remember what I actually put in things.”

The recipes, Spears said, are not exactly as he would make them on the ship. “When you’re writing a recipe, you’ll tone it down from what you would actually do … [it’s] to guide them to a taste they can adjust.”

Since he started the blog, Spears sees about 100 visits per day and many more to the Facebook page of the same name, linked to the blog. His recipes cover a wide variety of taste and cuisines, due to his wide breadth of experience and his desire to appeal to the palate of his audience.

During his years as a ship’s cook, Spears has set the table for crew members from many nations. He’s learned the tastes of Brazil, a handful of Asian countries – such as the Philippines – and the flavours of Cajun cuisine from his crewmates.

With all that cooking came travel. Spears has been through the Panama Canal, without getting stuck. He’s ‘traced one warm line’ through the Northwest Passage, where he was thinking, ‘I wish I was in Sherbrooke now.’ In all that time, in all those places, he said he’s only ever missed serving one meal.

When seas are choppy, ship’s kitchens are designed to keep pots and pans in place with metal grids set on ranges and ridges along counter tops. Spears told The Journal, “In rough seas, some people just go to soup and sandwiches. I just put less fluid in the pots and go on as usual.”

Heavy seas are only one obstacle a cook faces on a boat, another is supplies. The ship schedule runs 28 days between crew changes, and this also means 28 days between supplies. Spears said, “A lot of times you are working around things; you modify recipes to suit your product. The plan is to refresh fresh vegetables once a month with crew change. We’ll try to make our fresh veg last for four weeks.”

When asked if he had a favourite recipe or type of cuisine, Spears said, “I am really partial to American-style BBQ and smoked foods. I have a smoker on board; I can do smoked foods and grilled foods on board the ship.”

He’s also very fond of his labour-intensive French onion soup recipe, “It takes me three days to make the stock at home … a glace de viande.”

While working in Brazil, Spears acquired a taste for feijoada, a black bean stew and pão de queijo – cheese bread that is “like eating cheese crisps.”

With more than two decades serving crews at sea, Spears notices that tastes are changing. “As time goes on you are starting to see more vegetarians, which isn’t a big thing for me because… [I] always try to have a lighter option. Almost every day I’ll put on a vegetarian meal of some kind.”

Spears is open to learning new things and hopes “to produce some items that are a taste of home” for everyone.