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CHARTING MANY COURSES

Throngs of tourists, many dressed in straw hats and Hawaiian shirts, line up at the Dundalk Marine Terminal, waiting to board Carnival Cruise Lines' newest ship, the Miracle.

Destined for a weeklong cruise in the Caribbean, the visitors come expecting sun, relaxation, pampering - and food.

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"People expect a lot of food and what they get is a lot of food," says Sanjay Dhall, the executive chef of culinary development for Carnival Cruise Lines.

While members of the Miracle's crew greet the melee of new passengers, Dhall is below decks, supervising the arrival of seven days' worth of food.

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Heavy equipment loaders move in massive pallets of meat, produce and other wares. In a single week, the ship will go through 5,000 pounds of chicken, 18,000 shrimp, 32,000 eggs and 5,220 heads of iceberg lettuce. All told, about $300,000 of food is loaded into the Miracle.

"We are out at sea for much of the time, meaning that provisioning is essential as there is no grocery store in the middle of the ocean if you run out of food," says Cyrus Marfatia, the vice president of food and beverage for Carnival Cruise Lines.

But it isn't just the quantity of food that matters, it's also the quality, Dhall says.

"It's more gourmet food than only buffet ... things are cooked very much to order in batches."

Dhall has been feeding cruise clientele for 10 years. He began his career with Carnival in 1984 as a junior associate, and worked his way through the kitchens of its ships to attain his current position of culinary supremacy.

He not only oversees the 128 members of the Miracle's kitchen staff, but the kitchens of the other 22 ships in the Carnival fleet as well. It is a monumental job, one that Dhall performs with military precision. "It's like running a brigade," he says with a smile.

Dhall first learned to cook by watching his mother in India. After attending a culinary academy in his home country, he followed the well-beaten path to France to improve his skills and work with Michelin-starred chefs.

He admits that he wasn't looking to work on a cruise ship, but took the opportunity when it came. "Once I got here, I thought I would work here for a couple of years and move on."

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But Dhall found that he liked the corporate culture at Carnival and he stayed. "They are not biased by my not being an American and they allow for a lot of creativity. They allow you to pick your team and move them the way you want. There's actually a lot of freehand."

Dhall's job is equal parts accounting and culinary creation. The cruise line maintains historical data of each ship's consumption from each port and Dhall makes assumptions about ordering based on the guest profile indicated by that data. He is also responsible for reviewing and changing the menus. "Every six months we do a reality check on the menus - what is working, what is not - and change the menus accordingly," he says.

"When you're designing the menu, you can't get overly ambitious. ... You have to be practical that it can be done for 3,000 people," he says. "The greatest challenge is to give people the feel of any gourmet restaurant, while basically paying peanuts for it."

All meals on the Miracle - with the exception of the reservations-only supper club - are included in the price of the trip for the 2,124 passengers.

Cruise ships have a reputation for producing a round-the-clock stream of abundant food and the Miracle is no exception. There are no long buffets of food under warming lamps, but almost any food craving can be satiated at nearly any time of day.

Breakfast, lunch and two dinner seatings are offered in the main dining room that features eight soups, salads and appetizers, seven entrees and four desserts plus "SpaCarnival" selections and kids' meals each night

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The Lido Deck, also called Horatio's Restaurant, is a self-service area offering breakfast and lunch from different themed eateries, similar to a mall food court. This is where the Seaview Bistro serves dinner, too, in a more casual cafelike environment than the main dining room. There's even a dessert bar and sushi bar each night.

Low-carb options have been added to the menu, but Dhall says they aren't overwhelmingly popular.

The Miracle takes its interior design direction from major fictional themes in history, films and literature. The main atrium is designed to honor Superman's Metropolis, and at the pinnacle of the atrium, what feels like miles above the main lobby, floats Nick and Nora's, the only fee-required eating outlet onboard. It boasts such items as iced Russian caviar and Alaskan king crab claws. This is also one of the many outlets where passengers can indulge in the ship's most popular dish: lobster.

Modeled after the traditional American steakhouse, Nick and Nora's produces plates of food that match flavor with an artistry one would expect at only the finest restaurants on land. A trio of escargot is served wrapped in rice paper, in brioche dough with goat cheese and atop asparagus custard. Surf and turf is accompanied by the unique pairing of oxtail comfit with pumpkin ravioli and topped with bone marrow.

The ship's main dining room, Bacchus Restaurant, is named for the Greek god of wine who was famous for his elaborate feasts. The restaurant is bedecked with paintings of the god in the classical style and oversized bunches of grapes modeled into chandeliers hang from the ceiling.

But just below this elaborate surface is an escalator that descends into Dhall's territory, an orderly world dominated by spotless stainless steel. Dhall has a small office in the ship's enormous main kitchen with a window that looks out - not over the ocean, but over massive caldrons of soups and sauces.

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Dhall walks down corridors of cold storage units, stopping to showcase boxes of fresh salmon and breaded shrimp. The pastry chefs, responsible for all the desserts as well as baking wedding cakes for nuptial guests, have left a plate of chocolate strawberries for Dhall that were rejected for being too big. Dhall's staff circulates around him, courteous and deferential. It is obvious that Dhall runs a tight ship.

Dhall's morning begins at 7:30 a.m. with a review of the accounting reports from the previous day's consumption. By 8 a.m. he's in the kitchen checking on breakfast and room-service orders before returning to the chef's office to approve all the requisitions for the day until it is time to begin lunch. Dinner preparation begins at 4 p.m. for the two separate seatings in the Bacchus dining room.

According to Dhall, midday is the most crucial point of the day. "At around 2 o'clock, most of the time we go for a nap," he says. "That afternoon power nap is a must!"

While feeding the Miracle's passengers is top priority, Dhall is quick to point out that the 930-member crew must be fed as well. "We put lots of emphasis on the crew food," he says. "You'd be surprised that the food that is served in the crew mess is no less than what is served for the guests on the Lido."

On any given evening, crew members enjoy baked mahi-mahi with sliced onion, tomatoes and olive oil, or spaghetti with artichokes in a tomato sauce and a full selection of desserts.

Like any fine-tuned operation, Dhall relies heavily on his staff. "You cannot micro-manage this place," he says. Dhall has a core team of about 10 supervisors who meet once a day and help him keep operations moving smoothly. "If you have the right team and the right training, it becomes much easier."

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Carnival's staff is a veritable United Nations, but the official language of the kitchen is English. Staffers who make it through the strict recruitment phase must have at least a functioning understanding of English and undergo training on land and on the job.

While many chefs would balk at the volume of food Dhall is required to oversee - not to mention the six months he spends at sea away from his family in India - Dhall says the toughest part of his job is keeping his cooks happy.

"The biggest challenge is to keep your team motivated because maybe for the guests it is not monotonous, but for the team sometimes it gets very monotonous to cook the same food throughout their entire time of six to eight months," he says. "To keep them alive, you have to come out with a special lunch or dinner here or there to keep them mentally alive."

Dhall keeps his finger on the pulse of culinary trends by doing internships with renowned chefs, like Charlie Trotter in Chicago. It is on these land-based outings that he has come to really appreciate his watery kitchen domain.

"You think we work hard? You go and work on the land for these kind of restaurants and you slog like there is no tomorrow, for sure," he says. "I really enjoy this and I can't imagine doing anything else but this."

Dinner options come to 'Miracle' passengers in mouthwatering waves

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Here is the menu of one dinner on the Miracle:

Starters

Fantasy of Fresh Tropical Fruit and Berries Arranged on Mango Coulis

Mississippi Delta Prawns With American and French Cocktail Sauce

Ragout of Wild Mushrooms Served With Goat Cheese Crostini

Minestrone Milanese: Italian Vegetable Soup With Plum Tomatoes, Beans and Pasta

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West Indian Roasted Pumpkin Soup Gently Roasted in the Oven, Blended With Chicken Broth and a Touch of Cream

Strawberry Bisque: Chilled Creamy Strawberry Soup With Fresh Mint Salads

Mixed Garden and Field Greens, Tomatoes, Cucumbers and Carrots With Choice of Dressing

Caesar Salad: Hearts of Romaine Lettuce Tossed With Our Caesar Dressing, Freshly Grated Parmesan Cheese and Herb Croutons

Main courses

Trennette Puttanesca Pasta With Roma Tomatoes, Anchovy Fillets, Capers and Chili, also available as starter

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Ancho Honey-Basted Fillet of Fresh Pacific Salmon Presented on Five-Bean Salsa and Rice Noodles

Broiled Lobster Tail With Melted Butter, Mushroom Risotto and Broccoli Florets

Whole Roasted Quail Filled With a Delicate Herb Stuffing and Marsala Wine Sauce

Tamarind-Rubbed Tender Roasted Prime Rib of American Beef au Jus, Baked Potato With Traditional Toppings

Grilled Brochettes of Fresh Garden Vegetables Vegetarian Entree, Served With Couscous

Low-carb selection

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Mississippi Delta Prawns With American and French Cocktail Sauce

Mixed Greens, Tomatoes and Cucumbers With Vinaigrette

Tender Roasted Prime Rib of American Beef With Natural Juices Cooked to Perfection, Broccoli Spears, Cauliflower Roses and Grilled Tomato

Fresh Tropical Fruit and Berries Arranged on Mango Coulis

Italian Vegetable Soup With Plum Tomatoes, Beans and Pasta

Whole Roasted Quail Filled With a Delicate Herb Stuffing


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