Most chefs are pretty capable of cooking pasta, regardless of their cultural or ethnic background. I say “most” because there are huge numbers of self-styled professional cooks who suffer from a serious defect whenever they attempt to expedite the process. The defect involves the manner in which they set up to serve up pasta dishes to a large crowd, something you yourself have tried to do from time to time no doubt.
In my experience the most egregious incompetence in large-scale pasta preparation exists within the community of chefs found on board each and every cruise line I have patronized over the past ten years. I consider them to be the most notorious practitioners of the black art of desecrating such a simple dish so thoroughly and consistently.
Among this group of ocean-going galley hot shots I single out for illustration the kitchen on board the Celebrity Constellation, an aging mega-boat that took us around the Mediterranean just a short while ago. This ship features a “pasta bar” in the top deck buffet/cafeteria, along with a round-the-clock pizza station. We’ll leave the pizza aside for now.
Some qualifications are necessary. First these ships attempt to serve anywhere from 2 to 3 thousand people 3 or more times per day. It is impossible to feed masses of humanity of that size and expect three-star Michelin quality. Can’t be done. That is not to say however that the floating kitchens can’t turn out an outstanding dish now and then. They do.
Second, galley staff is a moving target. Chefs and sous-chefs come and go. This inevitably makes it difficult to maintain consistency throughout.
Third, at the risk of sounding politically incorrect the Executive Chef, the place where the buck stops, in every cruise line I have patronized hailed from countries with food cultures far removed from anything remotely resembling pasta cuisine. Now I’m not saying you have to be Italian to make good pasta, only that these otherwise highly talented chefs from all over Asia and the Philipines have to retune their skills a bit to achieve good results with “continental” dishes, unlike cooks coming from Europe or the U.S. No matter how you slice it, as a whole, Western cuisine is not their strongest suit.
I expect to be taken to task for this comment but I’m stickin’ to it.
Which now brings us to the body of the crime. In an attempt to short cut the prep and service time, the Celebrity chefs – and thousands of other restaurant chefs whether on board or on shore – have succumbed to the habit of boiling large quantities of the pasta halfway and then removing it to a holding pot to await an order from an unsuspecting diner.
Once an order is placed the server pulls out a portion of the half-cooked product, which by now is all stuck together in globs, and drops it into a pot of hot water, most likely unsalted, to finish the cooking. OMG! The result is a pasty-textured composition devoid of flavor. The server then proudly decorates the glob of spaghetti with something resembling marinara or “bolognese” sauce, and parmesan cheese that of course has no connection to the authentic product from Parma.
Now I’m well aware that these observations will never reach the cruise line management but for the silent record here is the way to serve spaghetti to a large crowd one at a time or all at once and keep most of the quality intact:
- Fully cook the pasta according to package directions, even if you’re using a 50 gallon pot and 20 boxes of linguine! Observe the specified cooking time.
- Drain it off and immediately drizzle with olive oil to retard sticking. Toss to distribute the oil. The pasta will keep covered and refrigerated for a number of days. You might also save the cooking water for later use. A word about the oil. The experts claim this suggested technique prevents the pasta from absorbing the sauce. No such thing, just another myth waiting to be discredited.
- To serve a portion to a guest simply grab some with a pair of tongs and transfer the pasta to a serving plate, dress it up with whatever sauce and then – believe it or not – microwave for one or two minutes. Many chefs also just swish the serving in a hot pan containing the sauce for a few seconds.
To serve multiple guests at one time set up the serving dishes. Then draw out however many portions from the holding pot and quickly dunk them in simmering hot salted water for just ten seconds, or use the water you reserved and kept hot from the original cooking. Remove the pasta with a large slotted spoon or sieve. A pair of tongs works as well.
So much for that.
However I can’t help mentioning another baffling surprise offered up by the Celebrity chefs: They display a big sign at the pasta bar that says they serve only “gluten free” pasta. Gluten free probably because they think everyone on board has celiac disease. OK so why not also serve cholesterol-free egg substitute and refrain from putting out any item containing saturated fat!!
For the record celiac disease reportedly affects less than 2 percent of the world population, and among them only around ten or twelve are aboard a given cruise ship at any one time. Most them are undiagnosed believe it or not.
To finish up. while we’re at it here’s a reminder of things to consider whenever the pasta spirit moves you:
- Pasta water must be rapidly boiling, not just simmering, unless of course you’re cooking delicate home made egg noodles, which don’t like being knocked around in the pot so much.
- There must be salt, any kind, sea salt, grey salt, kosher, table whatever. This means one heaping tablespoon per gallon and no less. If you are on a salt-free diet skip the pasta altogether. Besides it all carbs anyway, right?
- Next there must be no oil added to the water. Adding oil does not prevent sticking, only occasional stirring does. Write that on the blackboard 500 times.
- Save some cooking water. Adding a it to the serving dish keeps everything nice and loose while adding body to whatever sauce you have prepared. we will skip the scientific reasons for this phenomenon. You can swish the pasta around in the pan containing the hot sauce if you want the extra exercise but that’s all it is, extra exercise, even though every italian-oriented chef on the planet swears by this routine. As noted above you do this to reheat pasta that has be sitting for a while, not because you think the pasta will absorb your favorite marinara.