Lake Erie Freighter Chef Dishes on Ship Life

For Catherine Schmuck, retirement means a life on the Great Lakes — and a new cookbook.

Catherine Schmuck prepares to head to sea.

This story was supposed to run before the holidays, but when you work on a Great Lakes freighter, things don’t always go according to plan.

This is how Catherine Schmuck explained the delay: “Christmas is always a complicated time on the ship. Christmas dinner and, of course, 24 people who would really rather be at home for the holidays.”

But we caught up with Schmuck eventually — and she filled us in on what it’s like to be a chef on the Rt. Hon Paul J. Martin, a cargo ship currently on its way to Quebec City. Born in Brockville, Ontario in 1962, Schmuck ran Creperie Catherine in the Quebec ski resort town of Mont Tremblant for 24 years. She recently published a cookbook called Ship to Shore Chef.

Q. How did you get into the shipping world?
A. I started sailing in 1981. I had just finished high school and was working in a family run motel and bar. One of the patrons who used to stop in the bar told me about sailing and that they were looking for people. I was intrigued and decided to give it a try. My younger sister went with me, and we both sailed for 13 years before opening our own restaurant. My first ship was the Frontenac. I returned to sailing after owning my own restaurant as a retirement gift to myself.

Q. Where are you right now?
A. Right now, I am in my room onboard the ship. We are anchored, waiting our turn to go into Two Harbors, Minnesota. We came from Nanticoke, Ontario, and we are taking the load to Quebec City. I am so excited to go down through the seaway and have a chance to wave at my mom in Brockville. I am hopeful that we pass during the daylight hours because the captain usually blows a salute for my mom. That is one long and two short blasts of the whistle.

Q. What did you make for dinner last night?
A. Last night was a special meal. I made butter chicken with basmati rice, Naan bread, onion bhaji and green peas. The second choice was sweet and sour pork and the third choice was baked chicken with gravy.

Q. Tell us about your new book?
A. It is 280 pages of full-color photos. People often refer to it as a coffee table book more than a cookbook. Some have bought a second copy so that they can keep one copy clean for the stories and photos of ships. Cookbooks often get spills, or at least mine do.

Q. You were recently in Lake Erie?
A. I was working on the CSL Niagara for the month of November and we made numerous trips in to Sandusky, Ohio. It's a fun port and I love seeing the Cedar Point amusement park.

Q. What is your favorite recipe in the book?
A. I am most proud of the Beet-meat Shepherd’s pie because that is a completely original recipe. I think my meat loaf is really good too, though. I'm still thinking while flipping through the pages in my mind. I like my sauces, too.

Q. What is your most treasured family recipe in the book?
A. I have a picture of my mom's spaetzle noodle recipe in the book written in German in her handwriting. My mom was a great cook, and my dad made great hamburgers. I have his recipe in the book, too.

Q. What is the most popular meal you serve?
A. The crew love fish and chips. I have the crispy deep-fried fish batter in the book and homemade tartar sauce.

Q. What is the hardest part of the job?
A. Cooking in bad weather.

Q. What is your favorite part of the job?
A. Being able to cook all day every day and make what I want. I can look out the portholes at an ever-changing scenery. I love to see whales when I am east. It's such a great job.

Q. What’s your favorite Lake Erie port city?
A. There are many, but I love how easy it is to walk into town from the ship in Ashtabula, Ohio.

Q. How long are you typically on a ship at a time?
A. It depends, 30 to 90 days. Right now, I am doing relief jobs so I do 30 days on one ship before moving on to the next ship for another 30 days.

Q. What was your scariest moment?
A. Hitting a mountain in the Saguanay River in Quebec. The pilot said hard to port; he meant hard to starboard.

Q. What do you do in your free time on the ship?
A. I hang out with my virtual crew. I blog every day and have a following of almost 13,000. I invite people to pack their virtual sea bags and come along with me, so I am never alone. I like to walk on deck and I love to take pictures and share my photos and highlights of my day on social media. I like to share the adventures of sailing on a ship.

Q. What is the most peaceful moment in your day?
A. The evenings, when my day is done.

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