Chef on Great Lakes freighter dishes on an unusual cooking career

Catherine Schmuck has cooked on 22 ships during her maritime career.
Schmuck published Ship to Shore Chef, which contains recipes and stories.
Schmuck published Ship to Shore Chef, which contains recipes and stories.

Catherine Schmuck was 19 and working in a family-run motel and bar in Brockville, Ontario, when one of her customers raised the subject of a maritime career.

“He said, ‘Do you want to make a lot of money and have a lot of vacation?’” Schmuck, now 59, recalled in a recent interview.

That sounded plenty appealing for someone who grew up along the St. Lawrence River and routinely saw freighters coming and going. She often imagined what life might be like on one of those vessels.

Thus began her career as a maritime cook, which has taken her throughout the Great Lakes and North Atlantic aboard 22 different ships. Now in her second stint as a shipboard chef, she has taken a lifetime’s worth of stories and photos and published them in a cookbook loaded with crowd-pleasing recipes. It has already sold more than 2,500 copies. 

“I am extremely pleased it is being so well received,” she said of Ship to Shore Chef during a phone interview from her current ship, the Canada-flagged Rt. Hon. Paul J. Martin.

“I love to eat,” she added. “By nature, I am a nurturer, and giving someone food is something you can give to people to make them happy or brighten their day.”

Cooking up something special
It didn’t take long for Schmuck to make up her mind about going to sea. The same day she spoke with the customer in the motel, she told her parents she was leaving. Hannelore and Heinz Schmuck moved to Ontario from Germany in their early 20s and supported her decision. 

“Because they’re immigrants, they’re adventurers themselves,” she said.

Schmuck and her sister Lorraine signed on together. They embarked on a nine-week course at the Seafarers Training Institute in Ontario. The course was cut short by the desperate need for sailors — after a couple weeks they were both sent out on different ships. 

Schmuck joined the 729-foot bulker CSL Frontenac as a short-order cook. She worked the overnight shift from 2330 to 0730 making hot dogs, burgers and other no-frills foods for night owls, others on her watch and crewmembers about to begin theirs. Before long, she expanded into dayside cooking positions and branched out into new cuisine. 

“I began collecting cookbooks,” she recalled. “I would go to different ports and look for things to inspire me to improve my menu.”

Schmuck now serves a wide range of foods. Her menu includes everything from burgers to Indian butter chicken to enchiladas to roulade — a traditional German dish made of thinly cut steak filled with onions and pickles and slathered with mustard. 

The possibility of brightening her crewmates’ workdays with exciting cuisine is the best part of the job. “When you’re on a ship, you work seven days a week for long hours,” she said. “I feel like it’s my job just to do something special for their day.” 

During her first stint at sea, she worked on 10 different ships and one oil rig. Those travels took her to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and to the remote Sable Island some 200 miles to the southeast in the Atlantic Ocean. 

She and Lorraine, who worked as porter on different ships, both came ashore after 13 years. They opened a restaurant, Creperie Catherine, in the resort community of Mont-Tremblant, Quebec. 

After a while Catherine felt the old urge to return to sea, where her work was simpler. Instead of the grind of running her own business, it was “cooking for the joy of cooking,” she said. Finally, in 2019, at the age of 57, she returned as the chief cook on Rt. Hon. Paul J. Martin.

“Going back to sailing is basically a retirement gift to myself,” she said. 

Cooking at sea
These days Schmuck works as a relief chef, which brings her onto different vessels within the Canada Steamship Lines fleet. On smaller ships, she is often the only cook on board, meaning her days typically start at 0400 and last until 1800, with a break in the afternoon. Rt. Hon. Paul J. Martin carries a second chef, limiting her work week to seven eight-hour days a week.

“It’s basically like a paid vacation for me,” she said, adding that she loves to “look out the porthole at the ever-changing view.” 

Crewmates are excited when they see Schmuck working in the kitchen. “You don’t get any better cooks out here, that’s for sure,” said David Ogle, a first mate who has sailed with Schmuck on the 731-foot Rt. Hon. Paul J. Martin. “She can pretty much cook anything.”

Cooking at sea presents some unique challenges. For one thing, she needs to plan much further in advance to avoid running low on favored ingredients. The vibrations of a ship also take some getting used to. She learned early in her career that if you set something down, it might not stay where you left it. 

While sailing along the East Coast of Canada last December, a pair of meat pies that she was working on flew off the oven rack in heavy seas. Another time, while traveling to Port Alfred, Quebec, Schmuck was serving dinner when she felt a massive jolt. She grabbed her life jacket and went onto the deck.

“The first thing I saw was a wall of rock,” she said. “We had hit a mountain.”

Social media celebrity
Schmuck has built up an impressive social media following since returning to sea. She routinely posts on her blog and social media accounts about the different meals she prepares and her adventures on the water. Many are accompanied by photos of the food or her surroundings on and off the ship.

“It’s hard to describe how big her fan following is,” Ogle said. “There will be people on the Canadian side and the American side with posters that say, ‘Welcome Cathy.’ At any given time, there are at least three different groups of people on the shore just to wave to her.” 

Two of her biggest fans are her parents. Hannelore became a favorite among her daughter’s shipmates. Years ago, she would bring doughnuts, mail and small gifts to crewmembers after they passed through the Iroquois Lock on the St. Lawrence River. To this day, freighters Schmuck worked aboard blow their horns when they pass Brockville to greet Hannalore and Heinz. 

‘Ship to Shore Chef’
Schmuck has put her free time on the ship to good use. She wrote and self-published the cookbook Ship to Shore Chef: Recipes and stories as I sail through my day. The cookbook contains 280 recipes, many of which she serves to the mariners on her ships.  

Schmuck had never written much of anything before she started documenting her time on the ship. Those posts convinced her she could write, and they influenced the tone of the new book. 

“I thought my writing was like one long run-on sentence,” she said. But a regular blog reader later described her writing as “stream of consciousness.” “And I was like — ‘oh my God, I have a style.’”

That writing style has many fans. Schmuck initially printed 2,000 copies of her book, but she has since sold that entire print run. She ordered another 2,000 copies, of which about 500 are spoken for. 

Schmuck has shipped copies to Texas, and Tennessee, and to many people who live around the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Many reach out on social media to say thank you, or to share a story or two of their own.   

“It’s more than a cookbook,” Schmuck said. “It is my opportunity to share my memories, passions and experiences.” 

Catherine Schmuck’s cookbook, Ship to Shore Chef: Recipes and stories as I sail through my day, is available on her website