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The life of an offshore chef at Christmas and what goes into feeding 120 people in a remote location

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While most of us will be spending Christmas in our own homes feeding our nearest and dearest, others, like chefs offshore, have hundreds of people to serve.

Christmas this year is going to be a lot different to what we had envisioned, with less family time and more Zoom time factored into the day.

However for some, being separated from their family and friends is all in a day’s work at this special time of year.

Stephen Benn chef manager at ESS Offshore part of Compass Scotland.

Take Stephen Benn who works as a chef manager offshore for ESS Offshore, part of Compass Scotland for instance.

An uncustomary Christmas is the norm for Stephen, and has been for numerous years, although that doesn’t make it any easier spending time apart from his loved ones.

Having been working at sea and offshore for more than 30 years, he is used to spending holidays away from home than the average person and is kept busy on board the Maersk Highlander in the North Sea.

Motivating the team

With food a huge motivating factor, and a centre piece to Christmas Day, it is important for Stephen and his team to make the festive period as special as possible for the crew.

The festive display featuring edible sweet treats.

Working for ESS Offshore for almost eight years, he previously spent 23 years in the Royal Navy serving on both ships and submarines, so is no stranger to working in challenging conditions far from familiar surroundings.

Working in three-week cycles, Stephen and his team plan and prepare the meals for approximately 120 people on board the Highlander at any given time. This is a logistical feat all year round as they need to ensure adequate stocks that fulfil both the planned menu and any delays that may occur to food deliveries, which may be interrupted during poor weather conditions.

Sea bass fillet with a warm potato and cherry tomato salad with pesto oil dressing.

They also need to ensure variety and quality, which can be a challenge when working to long timescales.

Extra challenge

At Christmas, this challenge becomes much greater as the kitchen team prepare an extra special, multi-course Christmas lunch.

This year the menu will include dishes such as marbled salmon terrine with langoustine, watermelon, feta and red onion salad, glazed smoked ham hock, pan fried sea bass and sticky toffee pudding to name only a few.

They also prepare grand buffets featuring quality seafood from Peterhead’s Amity Fish Company on both Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.

Part of the festive display offshore.

Stephen said: “Working on an oil rig over Christmas can be challenging but I try to view it as just another three-week trip with more going on. Everyone works as a team and comes together to make the most of working remotely at this time of year.

“The build up to Christmas gets exciting on board as everyone tries to get in the spirit, and within the catering team especially we are always trying to get people engaged. Keeping morale up is really important so on Christmas Day, the mess is decorated and some of the crew dress up. There are also a lot more activities, from bingo and quizzes to raffles, and it’s a good opportunity for everyone to spend time together, talk and enjoy the occasion.”

Another dish crew offshore will be enjoying this Christmas.

Covid-19 Christmas

This year, due to limited occupancy in the mess because of Covid-19 restrictions, the team are serving the Christmas lunch across four sittings of just 30 minutes, with 10 minutes in between for thorough cleaning.

They will then serve the same menu as a midnight meal for those on nightshift across three sittings. This means the team must be completely precise in their timings to ensure fresh, hot food that is up to the same standard from first the plate to the last. This year’s grand buffets will also need to be plated, so the team are working to ensure the experience is still a great one for the crew.

Another of the festive displays which increase the Christmas spirit on the Highlander.

“We take great pride in everything we do and at this time of year and we enjoy showcasing the food we can offer,” Stephen added.

“Our chefs are well trained, and we also have a very talented pastry and desserts chef who is continuously improving her skillset, and we set ourselves very high targets for quality all year round. But at Christmas, when we have the opportunity to make meals extra special for the crew, we really endeavour to impress.

“The look on guests’ faces as they walk through the door on Christmas is always magical, and if we get a smile and a laugh, then it’s job done.”

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