While growing up in Brockville, Ontario, Catherine Schmuck would watch the big ships go up and down the St. Lawrence Seaway.
“We would always go to Blockhouse Island as a family after church and get an ice cream, hope to see a ship pass,” Catherine said.
Mainly, the ships were just part of the scenery, something to take for granted while thinking little about life on board.
But these days, Ms. Schmuck’s adventures in food are followed closely as she documents cooking for crew members on some of those ships. The popularity by fans of her blogging has inspired her to create a cookbook about her culinary adventures on ship, and also about her renowned culinary experiences ashore. The self-published book is scheduled to be released in late summer. It became available for pre-order on Tuesday, and in its first 24 hours of sales, 500 books were sold.
“I have received orders from England, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, all the states and provinces bordering the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway,” Mrs. Schmuck wrote on her blog on Wednesday.
When it comes to the cooks aboard Seaway freighters and tankers, Ms. Schmuck sails above and beyond them all, according to one veteran Seaway ship captain, who is also a trainer and evaluator.
“There are cooks, and then there are cooks. And Catherine is more than just a cook,” said Capt. Duane Dempsey of Montreal-based Canada Steamship Lines Group. “Every meal that she puts out, every single meal — breakfast, lunch and supper — it has her signature on it. Every plate that goes out to each crew member on board is just a work of art.”
Ms. Schmuck returned to cooking aboard Seaway ships in 2019 after running a popular restaurant, Creperie Catherine, in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, with her sister, Lorraine. They opened it in 1994 and closed it in January of 2019.
“The restaurant business is not an easy business to be in,” Ms. Schmuck said in a phone interview from her home in Mont-Tremblant. “We decided it was time to move on and return to things that bring us joy and less stress. I’m just glad we made that move.”
Catherine said her family has always been focused on food.
“My mom and dad are from Germany,” she said, noting the word “Schmuck” is German for jewelry. “They grew up in the war, so there was always this huge appreciation for food. My mom was a great cook. When I had my own restaurant and creperie, it was important that the food be good and memorable and we had a lot of positive feedback and publicity over the years.”
The sisters opened the restaurant after working in the galleys aboard Seaway ships. Catherine lived that life from 1981 to 1994. The idea of the career was sparked in 1981, around the time Catherine graduated from Brockville Collegiate Institute. She was working at a Brockville motel at the time.
“I met a customer one day while working in the bar who asked me what I was doing after graduating from high school,” Ms. Schmuck said.
She responded that she wasn’t sure.
“He talked about his job working on the ships and I was right away captivated,” she said. “It sounded exciting. I went home and told my family about it.”
Her sister Lorraine, a year younger, also became interested in the idea.
“She said, ‘If you go, I’m going,’” Catherine said. “So the two of us went and joined the sailing world.”
They went on different ships. Catherine’s first ship was the CSL Frontenac, where she spent a year. The last six years of her 13-year stint was aboard the CSL Louis R. Desmarais.
“In between I was on eight other ships and one oil rig off of Sable Island (186 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia) when Lorraine and I wanted to try something different.”
The sisters worked on different rigs off the island: Lorraine on the Rowan Gorilla 1 and Catherine on the Rowan Gorilla 3.
“It was exciting going to work by helicopter every two weeks, but overall I preferred sailing,” Ms. Schmuck said.
She enjoyed bringing new culinary adventures to crews.
“When I finished with the restaurant, I thought there was no question — I knew I was going back on the ships,” Ms. Schmuck said. “And I decided this time, I’m going to document where I’m going and what I’m doing. When I was in the restaurant business, people kept telling me, ‘You have to write a cookbook’ because I would often tell them stories about when I worked on a ship. People love to hear about that because it’s something they aren’t familiar with. And I love talking about ships because it’s so close to my heart and such a great experience.”
When she closed Creperie Catherine, Ms. Schmuck found her more “joy and less stress” when she stepped aboard Seaway ships once again. In 2019, she took a job as cook aboard the tanker Algoma Hansa. In September, she took a six-week job as relief cook aboard the bulk carrier Rt. Hon. Paul J. Martin.
She enjoyed the less stress found cooking in ship galleys and rediscovered the extreme satisfaction in making crew members happy with her creations.
“When I see that the crew is excited to see items that they normally don’t get on board, that motivates me to want to impress them more,” Ms. Schmuck said. “So if I have a crew that’s excited about the food, then I’m like, ‘Wait — if you like this, wait until you see what else I can make for you.’ It’s really not difficult to make a regular meal more special.”
For example, her homemade hamburger and sub rolls add a quality touch to simple meals.
“That just makes it a little more special,” she said.
She also regularly serves up Chinese food.
“I had one crew member say, ‘I’ve been sailing for 15 years and I’ve never seen Chinese food like this on a ship,” she said. “I always joke with them that I ordered out.”
But she enjoys the overall experience of life aboard a freighter. For the month of April, she was on the lake freighter CSL Baie St Paul.
“Great great crew, beautiful galley with three portholes and great runs going to the East coast — Newfoundland, Prince Edward island and Magdalene Islands,” she said.
Capt. Dempsey first served with Ms. Schmuck several years ago while aboard the self-unloading bulk freighter Louis A. Desmaris, now known as the CSL Laurentien.
“It was a very special ship back in the day because of the galley staff that it had, and Catherine was there,” Capt. Dempsey said.
He has occasionally “bumped into” Ms. Schmuck the past couple of years in her return to ships.
“Every single crew that she touches is blessed, because they can’t say enough about her,” Capt. Dempsey said. “So every time that I go aboard that ship, the morale changes. The galley on board a ship is like the epitome of morale. If the food is good and the cook is good, it just changes the whole dynamic of a vessel.”
After finishing her stint aboard the CSL Baie St. Paul in April, Catherine decided to take the time to complete and publish her cookbook, “Ship to Shore Chef,” now available for pre-order at shop.shiptoshorechef.com.
She got the idea for the cookbook from the feedback on her blog posts. Thousands of fans have commented on her photos of dishes she created while at sea.
“People were writing to me and I thought that this was a really cool and nice community,” Ms. Schmuck said. “I loved getting the comments and started writing back, even though the internet on a ship is not the best.
Her cookbook is more than about food and recipes. In it, she also explores life aboard ships.
“You can go through the cookbook and get an idea of what it’s like to work on a ship — to be there day in and day out. They’re getting that from my blog as well.”
She returns to sailing and cooking on July 1 by joining the CSL Tadoussac for the month. She will join the CSL R. Hon. Paul Martin on Aug. 1 before switching back to the Tadoussac on Nov. 1. On Dec. 1, she’ll head back to the Paul Martin.
Both ships carry a second cook, a setup that attracted the chef, giving her time to blog, walk on deck and to communicate with her followers as the cooks cater to the crew of about 25 sailors. Ms. Schmuck will take care of lunch and supper on her eight-hour days.
“It’s a fairly easy job. I often refer to it as a paid vacation because I love to cook,” she said. “I look at it as it’s my responsibility to offer crews something that makes them happy, or it’s a highlight to their day. I’m not necessarily sure that’s the way everybody looks at the job. But for me, that’s my nature.”
There are certain routines that Ms. Schmuck likes to stick to in her duties: on Saturdays, it’s steak with potatoes, mushrooms and onions — “the whole works.” For Friday lunches, it’s pizza.
“It fits me because it’s a day where I don’t have to think, ‘OK, what am I going to make Friday for lunch?’ And the boys like that,” Catherine said. “They’re used to my routine, and of course, Friday night, it’s fish. Those things work well for the crew and work well for me.”
On Sunday’s she cooks up brunch.
“I do some version of eggs Benedict, and it’s a huge hit.”
For supplies, Ms. Schmuck orders every two weeks, with deliveries at ports of call. “But you make sure that you order enough for three weeks,” she said, to account for weather delays or an unscheduled anchoring.
“Once I know the ship I’m on, I’ll contact the ship and ask if they’ll order some items prior to me arriving because I use a lot of different ingredients that other cooks don’t use,” she said.
For example, she’ll order leeks, fresh mushrooms and extra amounts of butter and flour.
While underway, the deliveries could come at any time.
“It depends on which ship you’re on,” she explained. “The self-unloaders like the Paul Martin aren’t in port for very long, so your groceries can come at 2 o’clock in the morning. If you’re on a tanker, you’re usually in port for 24 to 36 hours, so you can say the groceries are coming at a specific time and you can fit it into your day. But usually, I’m so happy to see the groceries I don’t care what time it is.”
On April 22, in her Facebook page blog, Catherine wrote about a delivery aboard ship:
“Yesterday the cadet helped bring in the groceries. He is so nice and polite, his parents should be proud of him. He carried in a case of avocados and asked if I ever made avocado toast for breakfast. I said I have not, but will make it for him.”
Ms. Schmuck has scores of fans on ships and shore, but her biggest fan is her mom, 87-year-old Hannelore Schmuck of Brockville. Some moms are hockey moms, others, soccer moms. Hannelore became a ship mom when daughters Catherine and Lorraine began sailing the St. Lawrence Seaway system. (A third child, Susan Hudson, eldest, retired as an intelligence officer for the Canada Border Services Agency).
In the 1980s and ’90s, when Catherine and Lorraine were sailing, Hannelore would call the Iroquois Locks Gauging Station, located 45 miles from Brockville and across from the town of Lisbon in the U.S., to check on schedules to discover when their daughters’ ships would pass through.
“We became friends with the lock master,” Hannelore said in a phone interview from her apartment in Brockville. Her unit overlooks the St. Lawrence River.
Hannelore and husband Heinz also became a favorite of crew members, perhaps because of something she brought with her on her trips.
“I always brought doughnuts,” Hannelore said. She even knew the favorite doughnut flavors of certain crew members and catered to those specific tastes. She kept a list.
“We also brought mail,” Hannelore said. “And some even gave us their checks to bring to the bank. They were always watching for us. It meant a lot for them that people came to see them when the ship came — day or night.”
Her dedication still means a lot to certain captains who pilot their ships pass her apartment in Brockville. Hannelore enjoys spending time on her balcony, watching the river and the ships. Many of the captains who know of her and/or her family ties blow their ship horn while passing, the resolute sound echoing off her building.
“And all the people around me know it’s for me!” Hannelore said.
Catherine is appreciative of the tributes.
“To have one of those massive ships blow the whistle and you know everybody in town can hear it, and you know in your heart that it’s just for you, is really special.”
Heinz Schmuck, 90, suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and resides at the St. Lawrence Lodge Home for the Aged in Brockville. He had a 31-year career as a toolmaker with Black and Decker in Brockville.
Hannelore said she and Heinz lived in the Frankfort area before emigrating to Canada after World War II.
“We were in the area of Germany where the Americans occupied,” she said. “We were the lucky ones because America had more money to help us.”
Heinz, who was in a popular 18-piece band as a teen, would often play accordion or saxophone for American soldiers.
“You won’t believe me when I tell you, but it was mostly for food,” Hannelore said. “Food was very precious.”
Hannelore said her husband is now unable to speak.
“They will wheel him to the window so that he can see the ships go by,” Catherine said. “To me, that’s really special. I was on the Algoma Hansa and they blew the whistle for my mom when we passed Brockville and three kilometers later, they blew the whistle for my dad. That was so special, like, thanks to mom and dad for encouraging us and for all those trips they made to Iroquois Lock in the middle of the night with their three dozen Tim Hortons’ doughnuts for the crew.”
She added, “Mom always said, ‘Maybe if I bring doughnuts, something nice, they will be nice to my daughters.’”
The treats may have helped just a little, but Capt. Dempsey said another quality has made Catherine stand out, and it’s not pastry-related.
“It’s very rare to see that kind of commitment and she’s just a happy person,” he said. “She loves her job and it shows.”
WHAT: The cookbook “Ship to Shore Chef” by Catherine Schmuck.
INSPIRED BY: The popular creations and blogging by Ms. Schmuck that document her creations aboard Seaway ships and life aboard those ships.
RELEASE DATE: Late summer
COST: $45 Canadian
OF NOTE: Ms. Schmuck, who grew up in Brockville, Ontario, said she would enjoy visiting Northern New York for book signings once pandemic-related border restrictions are lifted. “We used to go to Watertown all the time,” she said. “I’m definitely looking forward to when the border opens up.’’