How to Cook Aboard a Swedish Navy Warship

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How to Cook Aboard a Swedish Navy Warship

If you think cooking on a warship is no different than cooking on land, just wait until the knives start flying on the rocky seas. One Swedish navy cook shares his experiences on prepping meals aboard the HMS Sundsvall.
October 10, 2015, 5:00pm

Some mornings at sea, before even God has awoken, 042 Håkansson is preparing breakfast for the crew aboard His Majesty's Ship (HMS) Sundsvall, a battleship of the fourth naval flotilla in the Swedish navy. Breakfast is composed of porridge, freshly baked bread, boiled eggs, ham, cheese, shitty caviar in a tube (very Swedish), soured milk with muesli, nuts, fruit and berries, juice, and an ocean of coffee.

"The semolina porridge is the most popular among the crew. We also serve oatmeal porridge, but semolina is sweeter," says 042 Håkansson—better known as Max Håkansson among civilians—who acts as cook on the ship.

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042 Håkansson, AKA Max Håkansson. Photos by the author.

When the sea is calm, the kitchen duties on HMS Sundsvall are much like those in any other restaurant or street kitchen, but Max reveals that cooking on a warship on the water is quite different from cooking in a hotdog stand.

"You can't leave a knife like this," he says, gesturing to the tool left on the cutting. "It has to be wedged under something to keep it in place. It took me a while to understand that if you leave anything lying loose, it will disappear."

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Cooking on a warship requires great flexibility.

It is when the wind is howling over the Baltic Sea, when the waves are five meters high, and the sea sucks especially hard, that the peculiarity of the job becomes obvious. The ship is stomping forward across the water. Loose objects and crew members fall over and slide away—but cooking can't stop just because it's impossible to stand up. Max is holding onto handles mounted on the kitchen ceiling and walls while simultaneously stirring pots and cutting chives.

"Sometimes I have to hold on to things with one of my legs," says Max. "I keep one hand on the handle in the ceiling—balancing on one foot and keeping things from tumbling around with the other—while I fry something on the griddle."

Unfortunately the handles don't keep the seasickness at bay. "I have heard that a cook on one of the ships once was ordered to make something that was easy to throw up," he admits. Most of the crew is affected by the motion and the nausea it evokes, which can cause lasting culinary consequences.

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Some of the many ingredients used to feed the crew.

"My first week on board, not quite used to being out at sea, I'm frying ten kilos of bacon, and a huge pot with eight liters of milk, cream, and onions is simmering beside me and it smells like hell, all while the boat is rocking," Max recalls. "Near the end of my shift I just had to get out of the kitchen to vomit. I don't eat pasta carbonara anymore."

The kitchen, called the caboose, is about ten square meters and most surfaces are stainless steel. "When I first came here I figured it [was] pretty tight, but now that I've been here a while I've learned to like it." Despite its size, the kitchen contains most equipment that was needed to cook for a crew of 40 in the early 1990s, when the ship was launched. The cooking conditions haven't really changed since then, but anyone who has dealt with old kitchen appliances knows that they can be like dealing with certain old people: They are rigid and they do what they want.

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The HMS Sundsvall, docked.

"The oven is the worst. The handle has gotten stuck a couple of times and I haven't been able to open it. That has ruined a few meals for me. The stove takes a while to heat up, but then it's really hot."

Max tells me that the compact kitchen enables a single cook to make food for the whole crew, but it comes with drawbacks. In such a small space, the heat from the oven, the griddle, and the stove mix with hot steam from the dishwasher and creates what cooks refer to as "jungle humidity."

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In the kitchen aboard the HMS Sundsvall.

"It is very warm and you're sticky all over from water vapor and all kinds of shit. It's about 35 degrees [Celsius] in here and so damp that you don't know what to do with yourself."

There are two cooks assigned to HMS Sundsvall. When the ship is out on mission, Max and his colleague shift between kitchen duty and sleep every six hours. The routine can sometimes cause confusion.

"I'm not up on deck that often and the lack of windows down here makes it difficult to know what time of the day it is," says Max. "After a day or two I'll ask myself, 'Is it morning? Is it night? Which meal is I suppose to make? What the fuck is going on?'"

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Coffee is highly important to the Swedish navy.

Throughout the interview with Max, a steady stream of people runs in and out of the kitchen. Some have military business with him, but most are there to refill their coffee cups. "I have never had as many technicians in here as when the coffee maker was broken," he says. "The whole navy stops without them. They are very, very important." Napoleon (or perhaps Frederick the Great) once said that an army marches on its stomach, but the Swedish navy seems to float on coffee.

When they are not feeding the rest of the crew—this only occurs when the signal sounds to ready the ship for battle—the cooks have to feed ammunition to the ship's biggest baby, the front cannon. Their primary duty, though, is to transform the officers' mess hall into a makeshift infirmary and act as medics. If a mean submarine or the Loch Ness monster is lurking beneath the ship, the cooks must make their way to the main deck to assist in dumping depth charges.

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In the officers' mess hall with King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia.

But armed conflict is probably more likely for a diner line cook on a Saturday night than it is for the cooks in the Swedish Armed Forces. **"**I have been worried when boiling water or oil is spilling out of the pots and pans," says Max, "but I don't fear for my life."

Is he ready to die for bangs and mash?"Yes, kind of," he says. "I am not going to die for a carbonara, though."

This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2014.