Did I ever mention I stopped teaching English to pursue a job on a cruise ship?

Have you ever gotten to the point where what you’re doing is no longer fun, and you feel like you need a complete change of scene, routine, lifestyle? That’s what happened to me. Three years of living in Hanoi no longer had the same thrill and excitement as it used to. Don’t get me wrong, I still absolutely loved being in Asia. But most of my closest friends had moved on and there was something inside of me that made me just want to burst. I needed change.

My boyfriend and I had planned to move to Taiwan that year, and I was so excited about it. But circumstances on his side prevented him from being able to commit to the move and so we remained in Vietnam, though we moved from Ba Dinh to Tay Ho. However, that feeling of restlessness (and admittedly, a bit of resentment) remained. I felt like I wasn’t progressing in life. I had this idea in my head that I was getting old and becoming stagnant (haha, I was 24!!!) So I started putting out feelers for jobs all over the world, constantly searching for something else.

And I came across an advert for a Party Planner job on a cruise ship… Hosting trivia, game shows, culinary & beverage events, Captain’s dinners, socialising at parties, karaoke, etc.

I applied on a whim, had a couple of phone calls, and got asked to send a video of myself cooking something.
Me: Sorry, what?
Them: “Oh, it’s not about your cooking skills, it’s more just to see how you present yourself. Make it something simple”.
So, due to my extremely limited (non-existent) culinary skills, I spent a few days practicing making fresh spring rolls at my cousin’s house. When he finally had no space left in his fridge, he got out his camera, clicked record and I attempted to demo how to make them. We did it once only, with no practice. The result is cringe-worthy and awful,  but I’m happy to show it to you for fun. Besides, this was a while ago now.

Trying to make fresh spring rolls. Known in Vietnam as Goi Cuon.

Actually I didn’t think I’d get it, it was all just a bit of fun really.

But I did get it. And next thing I found myself in Alaska signing a contract that said CULINARY ARTS CENTER HOST!
Me: “What?! I can’t cook!”
Them: “It’s still the same job, we’ve just changed the title to promote the cooking shows more” (Did I mention it was 5 months between applying and the interview?)

My trainer later told me that I was actually expected to host cooking shows, sometimes with a chef, sometimes by myself, to audiences of approx. 250 people!

I froze. I panicked. My mind raced. I started looking at return flights from Alaska to Hanoi. I called home and cried. They laughed when I told them I was expected to cook in front of people and that the shows would be broadcast onto guests’ stateroom TVs.
Them: “But you can’t cook! Do they know that?”
Me: “Yes, they just keep saying “fake it ’til you make it”.
They laughed more. I called my boyfriend. He laughed too. “Just give it a week, see how it goes”.

As I watched my trainer host cooking shows, I became overwhelmed with fear as she easily relayed information about tomatoes – what else you can do with tomatoes, what you can substitute for tomatoes, garnishes you can create with tomatoes, the history of tomatoes, fun facts about tomatoes.
I realised, that as someone who’s never cooked their own meal, except for the time I tried to make pasta and set it on fire, I possessed neither the culinary knowledge nor skills required for this kind of job. I stared at the blank page of my notebook as my fingers tightly gripped the pencil. I was supposed to be taking notes, but I was motionless.

Setting Pasta On Fire While At University

The flights home were $1500+ so I couldn’t leave. I think I cried consistently for the next few days, which included my 25th birthday. Until another trainer came onboard who was extremely understanding and positive and told me I don’t have to do any solo cooking demos if I didn’t feel comfortable about it.

When my first cooking show loomed (for which I would be the host, the chef would cook), I think I was up all night researching the recipe, researching facts about every single ingredient. My recipe cards were full of notes.

The show started. I shyly welcomed everyone on the microphone, my white knuckles tightly gripped around it. I introduced myself, the chef, the recipe, and I think I was silent for the rest of the show until I said “Thank you so much Chef, let’s give him a round of applause!”

That’s basically how it went for my first few shows. After a while, I began to copy what the chef had said in previous demos to try to look like I knew something. I failed. People can see right through you when you fake it. The comments from guests were sometimes brutal. “Alex clearly doesn’t know how to cook.” “Alex comes across as a dumb blonde.” It was understandable though.. I once tried to give all this spiel about the history of a mango, the best way to cut a mango, spiritual meanings of mangoes in certain countries… then the black seeds seeds fell out as an audience member shouted “isn’t that a pappaya?” (the chef stitched me up!) Truth is, I was trying to be like the girl who could naturally tell you about the history of a tomato, and the other girl who could tell you all about the correct ways to cook different types of fish.

As I began working with different chefs who had different things to say/different advice to give than that of other chefs/different techniques to show, I stopped trying to copy other people, stopped trying to pretend I knew what was going on. Instead I took another approach. I made it more of a conversation. Instead of me talking while the chef was cooking, I got them to talk too. I started asking questions that I thought members of the audience might have (and me!). “Some chefs I’ve worked with say you should rinse pasta to get rid of the starch, others advise against it and say you should never do this as the starch helps the sauce to stick. What do you prefer to do and why?”

It worked. Everyone got so much more information this way, including me. “How long have you been a chef? How many people work in the kitchen? Where does our food get delivered from? What’s a typical breakfast dish where you’re from?”

The guests loved this. It inspired them to ask their own questions. I got so many guests come up to me with positive things to say. “Thank you for asking that, I felt too stupid.” The written comments from guests were lovely, “I loved Alex and the chef. They worked so well together.” “The cooking shows were the highlight of my cruise”

I began to feel comfortable and had so much fun that the cooking shows went from being my most dreaded event that I would lose countless sleep over them, to becoming my favourite that I was trying to schedule multiple cooking shows, every sea day and at least one shorter, more intimate one on port days when we’d have smaller crowds.

I invited other crew members into the kitchen when the main show chef was busy and had them demonstrate how to make dishes from their own country. I got them to talk about ingredients where they’re from, and also encourage guests to ask questions about their lives because this was one of the few ways the guests could actually interact on a personal level with the crew rather than “what would you like to drink? what tour do you want to book?” I think that this really enhanced the guest experience by getting to know the crew. We had cooking competitions between crew and senior staff members, informative shows with executive chefs, pastry chefs, bakers, butchers, regional cooking shows demonstrating dishes related to where we were cruising. We even had cooking competitions involving guests.

“Who’d have thought you would ever be hosting cooking shows, Alex?” My Nan said to me so many times. Friends laughed at me. Family did. And yet, they became really successful and I honestly had an absolute blast. I learnt so, so much. It helped me develop friendships with fellow crew members and guests. It gave me so much confidence, just being up on stage speaking and laughing freely on a microphone in front of hundreds of people. Something I never imagined I’d ever be able to do.

I could still probably tell you more about food than I could make it, but I wouldn’t change the experience for anything! It’s lead me to so many adventures.

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