Meet Catherine Schmuck, the chef aboard the Algoma Buffalo, and see what life is like aboard a Great Lakes shipping vessel.
MICHIGAN—It’s 5 a.m., somewhere out in the middle of Lake Huron. Catherine Schmuck opens her eyes to the sound of her alarm. There’s no time for the snooze button today. She needs all the time she has to prepare the breakfast for a crew of 20 aboard the Algoma Buffalo, a Great Lakes bulk carrier sailing under the flag of Canada.
Schmuck is the relief cook on the Buffalo, a 634-foot vessel loaded with a cargo of stone it picked up hundreds of miles north in Bruce Mines, Canada. The ship is en route to Detroit. The usual cook is on holiday, and Schmuck is filling in. She’s been aboard many boats during her time working on the lakes and along the eastern coast—27, to be exact. Each has its own intricacies and unique facets. The change of scenery is nice, too.
“I enjoy the variety of the ships, the trips they take, and meeting different people,” she says.
The Buffalo has “the most fantastic windows,” Schmuck says. It might seem an odd thing to notice, but when it’s your only way to view the outside world, you pick up on things like that.
“I have to remind myself to concentrate,” she told The ‘Gander. “I spend so much time enjoying the passing scenery or the unbelievably beautiful sunrise and sunsets.”
But there won’t be any time for gawking out the windows this morning. Breakfast is at 7:30 a.m. sharp. So Schmuck, the lone cook of the bulk carrier, rolls out of her cot and, after getting ready, makes her way to the galley. That’s where the magic begins.
Growing up on the Lakes and in the Galley
Schmuck’s love for lake boats developed at an early age. She grew up in Brockville, Ontario, right off the St. Lawrence River, a little northeast from where the river connects with Lake Ontario.
The middle child of three sisters born to German immigrants, Schmuck said every Sunday after church, her family would go to the river and have ice cream. They would watch the ships sail by in awe.
“Both my parents came to Canada by ship,” she said. “My dad worked for Black & Decker. We got to travel with him a lot when he went on business trips. We went to Chicago for one trip, which was the last time I was there before my trip this past Friday. I love to travel and adventure.”
Life aboard the boats began for Schmuck when she was 19. She worked at a restaurant and had a customer who came in a few times a week to chat her up about working on the ships that sailed by each day.
“I had just finished high school and he asked what I was going to do,” she reflected. “I went on to explain I was planning a trip to Europe with my sister, and he asked, ‘Do you want to make a lot of money and have a lot of holidays?’ I was 19; that was an easy yes.
“There was a shortage of sailors that summer, so I thought that would be fun and exciting,” she continued.
When it comes to preparing foods, this isn’t Schmuck’s first rodeo, either. She sailed from 1981-1994 before opening her own restaurant in Mont Tremblant, a city in Canada’s Quebec province.
The restaurant was quite successful. Creperie Catherine, as it was called, was featured in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Canadian Living Magazine, and on the Food Network show “You Gotta Eat Here.”
“The restaurant was fun but I am so grateful I got out of that business before COVID,” Schmuck said. “Owning a restaurant is a hard business when everything is going well. I can’t imagine how difficult [it would be] with COVID.”
Returning to sail after a 24-year hiatus was a gift Schmuck said she gave to herself.
“After 24 years, I returned to sailing, my first love,” she said.
In 2019, Schmuck worked aboard the Algoma Hansa, a Canadian tanker. She’s been on seven vessels since then.
“I always loved sailing, and while I had my own restaurant, I often thought about sailing and would share stories with customers about my sailing days,” she said. “It was in my heart, and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to return.
“Now, I cook for the simple joy of cooking and I have the best place to do that,” she continued. “I love to be on the water and always going somewhere. It offers endless excitement.”
Goodies from a Great Lakes Galley
The crew on the Algoma Buffalo—or any of the other 26 ships Schmuck has sailed aboard—appreciate her background in cooking. She says given a sizable budget and a background in preparing food, she tries to keep things creative and trendy when preparing meals for her crew.
Her day starts at 6 a.m., with breakfast, lunch, and dinner falling at 7:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 5 p.m., respectively. She gets breaks here and there, but spends most of her time working, as she is usually by herself in the galley and is in charge of cleaning up the mess area and doing the dishes, as well.
Schmuck says she tries to make homemade soup every day. She usually makes fresh bread every other day for lunch and offers three choices for the middle-of-the-day meal and two dinner options.
“I always like to offer something fun or trendy and something traditional,” she said. “When I get on a ship, I usually write a note on the menu board asking the crew if they have any dietary concerns or dislikes, and then I work my menus around that.”
Schmuck’s creative taste doesn’t begin or end with the three main meals of the day. She says she tries to offer themed meals, with a Mexican food night, a Chinese food night, or pizza options for lunch. As she has spent more time on the lakes and with different crews, she has tweaked her preferences along the way.
“I started something on the Algoma Hansa after having a conversation with one of the crew,” she explained. “He was going home on vacation and I asked what he was looking forward to and amongst other things he said he was looking forward to Sunday brunch. Since that conversation, I offer Sunday brunch on every ship. Eggs Benedict with homemade hollandaise, cinnamon buns, hash browns. It has become a popular choice.
“The crew work seven days a week with no days off and sometimes 90 days straight, so I look at my job as an opportunity to add something to their day, give them something to look forward to.”
A Ship to Shore Chef
With so many positive experiences aboard the ships she has sailed on, Schmuck said she started sharing her stories with her friends and family. Eventually, she launched a Facebook page, Ship to Shore Chef, which quickly became popular and grew more followers. It now stands at nearly 5,000 followers.
“When I sailed in the 80s and 90s, I didn’t keep a journal and I forgot a lot, so I decided this time when I went sailing I would write about my day each night and post it on Facebook,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy writing and sharing my day with others. I am amazed at how the communities that follow me are growing.”
Schmuck says she’s always amazed at how many people comment and read her posts. She says she tries to read every comment and reply when she can, but slow internet and poor cellular connections on the lakes sometimes make things difficult.
“I get a lot of comments from people thanking me for taking them on a virtual trip, so now when I get ready to join a ship I post a message that everyone should pack their virtual sea bags, we are joining a new ship,” she said. “It’s fun to take my own crew of 5,000 with me when I join the ship. I am never alone.”
After finding success launching her Facebook page, Schmuck decided it was finally time to do something she’s long wanted to do: write a cookbook. She says it’s something her friends and family have been asking her to do for years.
Her cookbook, Ship to Shore Chef, will print in October. It’s available on her website via a direct-to-customer sale for around $35.
“My mom is a great cook,” she said. “We always had good homemade food and I wanted to share my recipes that were good home cooking and easy to make.”
The book is packed with recipes accompanied by photos, filled with color, Schmuck says.
“I decided to combine life on the ship with my favorite recipes that I cook for the crew so that is how I came to my book. ‘Ship to Shore Chef’, recipes and stories as I sail through my day,” she said.