Maritime catering – going back to the basics

Oct 07 2021

Many vessel crew have poor health for reasons which may be related to nutrition, such as high blood sugar or diabetes, says maritime catering consultancy MCTC. The answer may be to go back to the food which our grandparents ate – and it is not as impractical as many believe.

Too many crew members today have high blood sugar or diabetes, says Christian Ioannou, Managing Director of international catering management and training provider MCTC, and a fully trained restaurant chef.


The reason may be that they are eating too much processed convenience food, which is high in salt, sugar and preservatives. “Our body cannot metabolise the intake of sugar and digest the preservatives,” he says.


MCTC would like ships to go back to the basics, with cooks onboard making food with fresh ingredients, just like they did 30-40 years ago before convenience foods were widely available.


Many people believe this is impractical, or that ship crew should not expect healthy living, Mr Ioannou says. So the company has a mission to prove them wrong.


MCTC has 600 vessels under contract for catering management / catering competency management, of which 60-70 per cent are tankers. It started in business in 2013.


Filipino cuisine

When MCTC holds training sessions with Filipino cooks, it always asks them to compare the food they eat today with the food their grandparents ate. The answer is that the meals have the same name, but today, they are made from powders, while their grandparents would have used fresh ingredients.


For example, Filipino kare kare is an oxtail stew with a peanut based sauce, with sautéed vegetables like bok choy, eggplant, string beans, daikon or banana flower added. Now it is provided as “Kare Kare mix”.


Sinigang soup is a slow cooked dish containing large chunks of meat or seafood, and vegetables. “Today, seafarers are still eating what they call Sinigang soup, but making it from a powder,” Mr Ioannou says.


“The problem is not from the initial dishes, it is that everything is now being packaged.”


Maritime tradition

Some in the industry believe that seafarers should not expect healthy food, because that is how the industry is.


“I visited a vessel a few years ago and met a captain, I would say an old-fashioned captain. He asked me, ‘who told you we want to eat healthy?’ My question back was, ‘what about the other 23 crew members onboard. Were any of them asked if they want to eat healthy?’”.


The millennial generation, from which many seafarers today are drawn from, include increasing numbers of vegetarians. They may also take care of what they eat in other areas.


Good nutrition should also help seafarers maintain energy and concentration levels better.


So if shipping companies want a young energetic crew, they may want to change a few elements of maritime tradition, Mr Ioannou says.


“It somehow has become the norm in shipping – to be fed wrongly, rather than taking care of nutrition of crew onboard,” he says.



Some efforts to improve food are a little misguided. Some owners have suggested reducing the amount of rice, because as a carbohydrate, it converts into sugar. “We tell them they are barking up the wrong tree,” he says. “The real sugar which needs to be avoided is the sugar which can’t be seen.”


Another misconception is that healthy living is like going on a diet. “We are not putting anybody on a diet,” he said.


We can also discuss reducing the levels of meat in diets without needing to eliminate it. There has traditionally been a lot of meat in seafarer diets, Mr Ioannou says. This can be backed up by a belief that “we need excessive quantities of animal protein to sustain ourselves,” he says. “It is not entirely correct.”


One possible misconception is that ships should have lots of processed food, because much of the food onboard ships needs to be frozen, and frozen food is often processed.


“People often equate frozen and processed, that’s one of the things we are getting a lot. Frozen and processed are two different things,” Mr Ioannou says. “You can freeze vegetables.”


To determine if food is processed, you just need to read the labels, to see how much preservatives, sugar and salt has been added to it. “We urge people to start reading the labels,” he says.


Many people, including seafarers, believe that when their energy levels are down, it is good to eat foods high in sugar, such as chocolate, to get them up again. “It may be up for a few minutes but goes down rapidly,” he says.


People should seek out fruits, rather than food with refined sugar. “The good thing with consuming natural sugars like fructose, it takes much longer for the body to break it down. You can store energy for a longer period of time. During night shift, seafarers should eat fruit to keep their energy going.”


A common belief is that convenience foods are cheaper. MCTC has done extensive analysis to demonstrate that this is not true, the opposite in fact.


If shipping companies treat the galley the same as they treat any other department of the company (i.e. with activities structured using procedures), and training the cooks how to cook with raw ingredients, they could save between 15 to 20 per cent of the budget.


A curiosity of shipboard catering is that it often ends up as a “one man show”, Mr Ioannou says. A certain cook likes to order certain provisions, and is given a budget, which could be as much as $15,000.


But after a crew change, another cook comes onboard who wants to buy a completely different menu.


“I’ve been personally on many vessels where I was asking the cooks about a particular item in the fridge, and they say, this is from the previous cook,” Mr Ioannou says.


Needless to say, this leads to wastage of food.


In contrast, restaurants (not on ships) typically take great care over food wastage, Mr Ioannou says. “When I used to be a chef in Germany, the first thing the executive chef was looking at, when coming into the kitchen, was not what we were cooking, but what we were throwing away.”


Catering management

MCTC’s catering management program involves working together with shipboard cooks and suppliers to ensure deliveries of fresh food.


It has a network of suppliers around the world, which are audited to make sure their supplies are up to standard.


Ships are typically supplied with food every 2 weeks, and fresh vegetables and fruits should be able to last that long without being frozen.


The company has an in-house nutritionist, with a role of ensuring all dietary requests are taken care of, reviewing supplies which have been ordered, and ensuring there is enough inventory onboard.


MCTC has a goal to keep ready-made processed food away from vessels. “Slowly, with the collaboration and the education of the catering staff, we reduce the supply of ready convenience food.”


“We guarantee we can eliminate fast food within the first year of our collaboration,” he says.


Achieving this also requires the cooks onboard to buy into this goal, since they do much of the ordering of food. 


MCTC keeps in close communication with cooks onboard, helping them plan their orders and meals. “Our approach is purely on people, not just on a budget.”


“When we founded MCTC - it was always our vision to be one of those who transforms the industry into a healthier and happier place to work.”



MCTC offers a free catering competency development program together with its catering management program, encouraging crews to think like nutritionists.


It employs coaches, who are in regular communication with cooks onboard the vessels it works with.


These coaches explain to the cooks how important they are for the wellbeing of crew mates. “You're not just a person onboard the vessel. You're the one who is feeding everyone on board the vessel.”


MCTC also runs an annual cooking competition, to motivate seafarers to show how they have become “high calibre chefs,” with their work judged by sending photographs to a panel.


The cooks are invited to show their own recipes, bring their own twist on a well-known recipe, or create a work of art with food and complex recipes.


Cooks were challenged with making short crust pastry and a filling.


“The annual Cooking Competition is designed to highlight the sophisticated level of training that galley crew receive as well as inject some fun into the kitchen,” said Tonia Drousiotou, Culinary Training Consultant at MCTC.


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