Brian Blixt Jacobsen is a man who likes a challenge and it’s just as well. For 15 years the Danish-born chef has been working in what is arguably the most arduous of all professional kitchen environments.
Some would say all professional kitchens are tough places, especially if you happen to end up cooking alongside a bad-tempered tyrant. But catering for hundreds of diners aboard a passenger ship is an even rougher ride – often in more ways than one.
Aside from the obvious logistics of ensuring you’ve always got enough food to hand, there’s the problem of cooking it in a kitchen that doesn’t want to stay still. And some days are worse than others.
Brian has been plying the North Sea for most of his working life with DFDS Seaways.
For the past eight years the chef de cuisine has been sailing between Newcastle and Amsterdam aboard the 31,395 tonne King Seaways.
The North Sea may not be an ocean but it generates more than its share of atrocious weather. “We have bad trips, and then we have really, really bad trips,” Brian says with a laugh. “When it is bad, it is bad.”
His team of 18 (currently 13 chefs and five dishwashers, but the number will rise once the summer tourist season kicks in) has learnt to deal with the worst Mother Nature can throw at the vessel.
The wet tablecloths come out to stop pots and pans sliding off work surfaces and the crew – if not the passengers – learn to “rock and roll” with the ship as they slice, whip, mix, bake, cook and serve for the five on-board eateries that between them cater for between 700 and 800 diners per voyage.
All this, Brian maintains, is done with a ready smile, a good dose of seafaring humour and expertise of the kind it is hard to imagine would be mustered in most restaurant kitchens safely tucked away on shore.
The 35-year-old who hails from Jutland – the large peninsula that literally ‘juts’ out of northern Europe towards Scandinavia and forms the main part of Denmark – claims he has never been frightened when the weather unleashes its full fury.
“This ship, she is almost 30 years old and she has been through some seriously bad weather in that time,” Brian says. “I trust her to get us through.”
The day he is scared will be the day he decides to retire and start a new life on dry land.
He should have no problem walking into a job at a top restaurant. Anyone who can satisfy the appetites of around 5,000 passengers every week is a man worth his weight in salt.
But Brian and his team do more than just offer basic sustenance on the 16½-hour ferry crossing. In what are often difficult circumstances, the kitchen crew strive to produce, from scratch, food which Brian believes can match anything on offer from a top restaurant.
It would seem an almost hopeless task trying to please a variety of tastes. It’s one of the reasons DFDS’s two cruise ferries operating on the Newcastle-Amsterdam route – the other is the Princess Seaways – both offer so many dining options, from the Seven Sea Restaurant, serving a selection of up to 80 hot and cold buffet-style dishes from around the world, to the Explorers Steakhouse and the top end à la carte Blue Riband.
In addition, the King Seaways also has the Lighthouse Café focusing on light meals and the Latitude Restaurant with its Italian-inspired menu.
By necessity, Brian says the food takes its inspiration from global dishes and ingredients. “It is the best way when you are catering for all tastes.”
But he is mindful that his team owes it to passengers to be the best they can.
“It is our vision to make people happy. We know that for our passengers we are there at both the start and the end of their trip and we want to make it an enjoyable one for them.
“Eating is a big part of any journey and we want our guests to feel special. It is difficult to keep an eye on every dish that goes out, but I know I have people I can trust who feel as passionately as I do that we need to always be the best.
“For us, the most important rule is to keep it simple. Generally, I only prepare food which I enjoy eating myself and I love all the onboard dishes.”
Prices compare favourably with those you’ll find at modern, higher end British restaurants. In the Blue Riband Restaurant, for example, three courses come in at €39.50 (around £30).
Main options currently include seabass served with sautéed smoked bacon, runner beans, red chicory and a red wine sauce; braised pulled lamb shank with garlic mash, tomato chutney, crispy parsnip and rosemary jus; and roasted veal striploin with aubergine caviar, gorgonzola sauce and dried chorizo.
To keep things fresh, the Blue Riband menu is changed four times a year, with the other eateries at least twice. Brian works with the Princess Seaways’ head chef to pull the menus together.
“It keeps us on our toes and keeps us motivated instead of doing the same thing day in and day out,” Brian explains. “It is good for our customers, too. If you are travelling in May and come back in October, I would be disappointed to see the same things on the menu.
“All good restaurants change their menus and I am confident that we are producing food which stands up with that being offered by the best.”
It has become trendy for those restaurants to shout about how they are flying the flag for their area and rekindling the local food chain.
But it is quality, sustainability and affordability rather than locality that have to be uppermost in Brian’s mind.
Much of the beef for the Explorers Steakhouse menu, for example, comes from America, although there is Scottish tenderloin available.
“The company (DFDS) has contracts elsewhere and it’s decided at our headquarters in Copenhagen,” Brian says. “We are a large shipping company and our needs are huge.
“All our dishes are made fresh onboard every day using the best local suppliers from near Newcastle and Amsterdam. I know we do buy milk from Lanchester Diaries (of County Durham) and our local shipping supplier is Gibbons International (from Washington), so we may have more from the region than perhaps I am aware of.”
Would he like to be able to offer more North East produce? “Yes, for sure,” Brian declares without hesitation, but adds: “It is easy to say, though.”
Handling up to 800 covers a voyage, the supply needs to be consistent. It’s a year-round demand that realistically only the biggest manufacturers and suppliers can reliably meet.
And DFDS isn’t just operating on the Newcastle-Amsterdam run. The company has extensive English Channel services as well as numerous routes around the Baltic Sea, including Copenhagen to Oslo; Kiel in Germany to Klaipeda in Lithuania; and Kapellskär in Sweden to Paldiski in Estonia.
Brian would like to discover more about North East food and drink, though.
He admits he doesn’t get to go ashore in Newcastle as often as he would like. He works 14 days on and 14 off, and when in port there is only a seven-hour turnaround between sailings.
“We can go off but we are usually so busy preparing for the return sailing that we don’t get time. We have a lot of obligations apart from running the kitchen. We have, as a team, been to dine at Jamie’s Italian in Newcastle, and we have been to the restaurant at the Biscuit Factory. That was really nice food.
“I do feel I should get out more and that I should have more knowledge about the area. I have been around a little bit and got to see The Angel of the North, Penshaw Monument and Lumley Castle.
“You don’t get to see a lot of castles in Denmark, so that was good.
“I would love to have a holiday in the North East so I can do some exploring and eating. I haven’t had a holiday away from home for about six years now.”
But spending so much time away from his wife and sons aged five and two means Brian is happy to be a home bird when he’s not on duty. That doesn’t mean he gets to escape the kitchen. “When I am at home, I regularly treat my long-suffering friends and family to more experimental meals. I use this time to cook as a hobby.”
His favourite cuisines are Italian, Spanish and Danish – both traditional and the new wave as epitomised by Copenhagen’s two Michelin star Noma restaurant, which has pioneered foraging for ultra-local ingredients.
Would he like to introduce Noma-esque style dining to King Seaways?
“I think the foraging would be a bit difficult!” he says with a laugh.
“For me, Noma is the best restaurant in the world. But it is my job to find something suitable for everybody.”