The ups and downs of life on the Queen Elizabeth 2

YOU'RE going to spend the day baking. Out come the sugar, eggs, baking powder. You start measuring the flour: 1 cup, 2, 3, 31/2. Whoops! Out of flour! No problem. Just dash next door and borrow some from Mrs. Jones. No problem -- unless, that is, you're somewhere mid-Atlantic between Rio and Cape Town and 1,800 peckish passengers are sitting down for breakfast demanding their crumpets.

``Well, that hasn't happened yet, anyway,'' says William (Billy) Soutter, executive chef on board the leviathan luxury liner, Queen Elizabeth 2.

``We've learned to overstock the staples -- flour, sugar, potatoes, things like that,'' he says with a trace of Liverpool in his accent. ``I guess the worst thing was when all the milk went sour mid-trip,'' he moans.

In an office several sizes too small for his stout frame, Mr. Soutter sits among a small table set for two, filing cabinets, desk, and padlocked refrigerator. He pulls a chair near the open door that overlooks a gleaming, cavernous, stainless-steel galley.

``Got to sit here so I can keep an eye on the boys,'' he says, peeking out on a small army of white-clad men busily skewering hundreds of shish kebabs and piping neat rows of countless ladyfingers.

Mr. Soutter has been one of the two QE2 executive chefs since February. ``Karl Winkler is top man,'' he says. ``When he's on board, I'm No. 2. But we tend to split the cruises between us for the most part.''

Chef Soutter comes from a long line of sailor-cooks. ``My grandfather was a baker on a sail ship, and my father baked on a Navy vessel,'' he says with some pride. ``That is, until me dad was torpedoed three times by the Germans during World War II. He came home after that, threw his bags down, and announced, `That's it!' He never went back to sea.''

So was it pride of heritage, a sense of destiny, the romance of the sea, or just the love of preparing good food that brought Chef Soutter to the water?

``Conscription,'' he says without a second thought. ``Back in the '40s in England you had two ways to avoid the draft. You either went down into the coal mines or you went to sea. I chose the Merchant Marines.''

His interest in food began humbly enough.

``Started out as a fishmonger,'' he says. ``I used to carry fresh fish from wagon to house around Liverpool.'' Later Mr. Soutter worked in the kitchens of two of Liverpool's major hotels, and he's been working at sea since 1951.

What does he miss most on those long months away from home?

``Well, it's not my wife. I'm a bachelor. That means all the money I make is mine,'' he says with a wink.

``Live with my sister near Liverpool when I'm off duty. So the first thing I do is call and see how the garden and goldfish are. Talked to her the other day. Found out there were 36 new additions to our fish family. But mostly I miss my football [soccer],'' he says, cupping his Everton Football Club mug with its blue and white emblem printed boldly on the side. ``Really miss my football.

``But,'' he says, exchanging the mug for a videocassette, ``got a football tape here. Some of the boys missed the ship when she sailed out of Southampton, so they had to fly to Boston. They brought along this tape for me. I'll pass it around so we all get to see it.''

Much of Mr. Soutter's time is spent overseeing the five kitchens and directing a staff of more than 140 -- from sous chefs to ``two European potato peelers.'' The ordering of fresh produce, fish, and meat is done by telex from ship to shore, as the QE2 travels from port to port.

``Hardest part of this job is planning a menu, having it printed up, only to find out we can't get the food we planned to serve,'' the chef explains. When he planned a luncheon for the new Chinese ambassador in New York, things went awry.

``I telexed New York for an order of yellow turnips. Well, they telexed back to say there were none available.'' So then all the menus had to be sent back to the ship's printer for a redo.

``It's not always a question of availability, either. Maybe on one of the Caribbean cruises we'll run out of bananas. `But I just saw bananas in the local market,' a passenger may say. Well, I have to explain that it's not just availability; it comes down to quantity and quality as well.''

The QE2 chefs boast they will cook whatever you like to your own specifications. They'll do their best, anyway.

``Got a request once for boiled sea gull eggs. Boiled sea gull eggs! Well, I told the kind gentleman we just couldn't get the birds off the nests. He was very understanding,'' Mr. Soutter says. ``Most of our passengers are very gracious.''

What about special cooking problems during a storm?

``Souffl'e?'' he muses. ``No, that's no problem. Come to think of it, fried eggs. In very rough weather the cooks have had to tie a rope around their waists and the stove and balance the pans with the roll of the ship.''

Along with the usual fare on the menus, the QE2 also caters to a variety of diets -- nondairy, low sodium, vegetarian -- and there's a kosher chef and a complete kosher kitchen. Chefs are often picked up at foreign ports around the world and taken on board to cook local favorite foods. And who could forget Fido, the ship's dog? There's a 50-pound bag of dog biscuits for him, too.

``Excuse me, but why that big padlock on the refrigerator?'' I ask, pointing to the little refrigerator bolted in the corner of his office. ``You like caviar?'' Soutter says in reply, taking a key from his pocket and calling for four little biscuits.

After unlocking the fridge and removing a large blue tin -- ``450 pounds for this can'' -- Mr. Soutter begins piling a small mound of tiny pearl-gray eggs on each quarter-size cracker.

``Like it?'' he asks as I inhale the last little wafer and nod with approval. ``Good, you've just eaten $88 worth of fresh Iranian beluga caviar,'' he announces, carefully returning the tin to its chilly vault.

``Brought some back to me mum once,'' he adds. ``She took a bite. `Not very good, is it?' she commented, and dumped 25 pounds' worth of caviar in the dustbin.''

As for the chef's own taste, it, too, has remained unjaded amid the royal fare. ``Give me plain food,'' he says as we wander into one of the five mammoth kitchens. ``No salmon, spinach, or lima beans for me. I've got to have my plain bacon-and-egg sandwich in the morning. That gets me through most of the day. Maybe an ice cream once in a while, too.''

There's plenty of that tucked away in the bowels of the ship. Enough for a single scoop for Soutter and for 23,999 others as well.

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