“I have traveled all over the world. I get to work with a lot of interesting people. It’s what I do, it’s not only work for me, it’s part of my life.”
Mark Smith has been a cook at UC San Diego for 22 years, first in a dining hall on the main campus and then onboard SIO’s research vessels. He’s cooked on Sproul, New Horizon, Melville, Revelle, and is now senior cook on Sally Ride. Of working on the new ship, Mark says, “The pride factor is really high here, we want to keep this vessel looking good.” I interviewed him during meal prep for Sunday dinner, which is the best night of the week thanks to him. It always includes surf and turf, plus special extras like a fancy dessert, cheese platter, and ginger beer. If there’s not scientists working on the fantail, the cooks or chief engineer often pull out the barbecue to grill steaks, filling the whole working deck and lab with the delicious smell. On this occasion, there were operations going on, and we got prime rib made in the galley instead (a worthy second choice).
As senior cook, Mark is in charge of three meals a day, as well as placing the food orders. Generally every 2-3 weeks a truckload of fresh supplies pulls up to the ship in port. It’s an all hands on deck moment, with crew and science alike setting up a chain to get everything onboard (see the time-lapse video below from during the shipyard period last summer). On longer trips, the cooks have to make sure fresh food lasts as long as possible. I’ve had crisp lettuce a month in – meanwhile at home mine turns into brown sludge in the drawer after two weeks. “We have plenty of tricks for keeping food good that long,” says Mark. He also makes sure the mess is supplied with plenty of snacks for people working all hours of the day. At any time you can make a PB&J, heat up some leftovers, pour a bowl of cereal, grab a granola bar or handful of nuts, satisfy your sweet tooth with candy, or make popcorn. Stashes of tea, coffee, soda, water, and milk are also available.
A second cook works with Mark, they trade off days being the primary cook: planning the menu and preparing the hot food like entrees and bread. The other person takes care of the salad bar, dessert, and cleaning the galley. To keep things fair, the primary person also gets to choose the music; you can tell it’s Mark’s day when you hear Prince getting funky as you walk down the hallway on the main deck.
Mark has worked with a few other cooks on Sally Ride in its first year in service as the crew rotates their time off, or moves to other SIO ships. He gets along well with Nick, who was onboard the ship in November and again in March. “Sometimes you don’t know what to make. I like cooking with somebody like him, that’s different from me, who has their own thing.” The cooks make sure to accommodate members of the crew and science party with specific diets – vegetarians, gluten free and other allergies, and I seem to detect slight changes under different captains as well.
These are the hardest working guys on the ship from what I can tell, working 6am-6pm every day, no matter what the weather or other circumstances. Scientists often work a 12-hour shift, but get down time if seas are too high to deploy equipment. There is no autopilot function in the galley, and good food is as essential to a research cruise as any other factor. “I know that the food is a big part of morale on any trip. For most people, it’s work and eat and rest, that’s it, so if you have a bad meal, that’s not good for anybody.”
I’ve sailed with Mark numerous times since beginning my oceanographic career, and I’m always excited when I see him in the galley when I come aboard for a cruise. He’s friendly, and remembers people even if it’s been years since sailing with them. Recently I’ve developed an allergy to walnuts, and he’s always good about making sure I can easily avoid them. During my stretch onboard these last few months, pecans have been the go-to nut in cinnamon rolls, brownies, and other tasty treats, and I know he’s looking out for me. He’s a good guy to befriend, and makes sailing on R/V Sally Ride a great experience.
Check out this 360 degree view of the galley (kitchen) and mess (dining room).
See more from Mark at the R/V Sally Ride gallery at Birch Aquarium’s Explorations at Sea exhibit! Thanks to aquarium staff for the interview, taken for the “Meet the Crew” feature.