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Near dock, tastes of home for Filipino cruise ship workers


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LAST UPDATED: 04:02 a.m. HST, Jun 30, 2011



NEW YORK » When the towering cruise ships pull into the dock at Red Hook, Brooklyn, their passengers pile into fleets of taxis and shuttle buses, cameras and sunscreen in tow.

But many of the ships' housekeepers, waiters, bartenders and engine mechanics skip the taxi line, heading straight for a former bait and tackle shop nearby.

Its facade is covered in bamboo, which seems to evoke the Philippines. The smell — a mix of grilled fish, coconut milk and pork blood stew — leaves no doubt.

Benjamin David, who once worked as a cruise ship waiter, has used classic Filipino dishes like offal with rice and bitter melon salad to tap into one of the global market's ethnic niches, the Filipinos who work in the cruise industry.

The smoking grill and plastic tables at David's shop, Philly-Pinoy, just down the block from the dock's gate, offer a makeshift cure for homesick Filipinos weary from working other people's vacations.

"We're missing home, missing the food; everything that we grew up with, we miss," said Nick Rabaya, 42, a Filipino who has waited tables for five years on the Caribbean Princess.

On a recent morning, sitting amid five Filipino friends from the ship, Rabaya finished up a meal of David's deep-fried pork and rice, which goes for $7 a plate.

"When I taste this food," he said, "it's like going home."

Oddly enough, David, 43, is from India, not the Philippines. In fact, he has never even visited the Philippines. But he understands how the workers feel from his own years on the water.

He offers a Filipino menu — including dinuguan, a pork blood delicacy that is his most popular dish — only when the ships are in dock. The rest of the week, he sells hot dogs, ice cream and, soon, bait and tackle.

"I like to see people comfortable and happy and eating," he said.

The Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, which cost more than $50 million to build, opened in 2006. It ushered in a new era of tourism for the borough, creating unexpected tableaus of glacier-size ships, including the Queen Mary 2, floating past the scruffy warehouses and cobblestone streets of Red Hook.

Last year, some 120,000 passengers passed through the terminal, spending roughly $30 million on souvenirs, meals and hotels in New York, according to city officials.

But only a small fraction of that money was spent in Red Hook. Most tourists spend their time, and money, in Manhattan or in Brooklyn's more upscale areas.

The cruise staff rarely gets the chance to venture that far. Workers are typically granted a short break between trips, enough time just for catching up on email, a quick errand and lunch.

Philly-Pinoy, which opened last year, has become a prime destination for many of them, especially Filipinos.

A 2008 study found that Filipinos made up roughly 14 percent of the cruise staff, based on a sampling of 116 ships. An earlier study analyzing 2000 data estimated that Filipinos made up 29 percent of the workforce.

There are various explanations for Filipinos' draw to the industry. Filipinos have a long history of seeking work abroad. Many of them speak English, making them valuable in the tourism sector. Cruise ships pay relatively well, and jobs at sea can be easier to get than jobs in other countries because of work visa issues.

Jeff Flores, 28, a Filipino waiter on the Caribbean Princess, estimated that more than half of the crew members were Filipino. A spokeswoman for Princess Cruises, which operates the Caribbean Princess, could not provide statistics but confirmed that Filipinos made up a large portion of the ship's workers.

For many of them, a typical pastime consists of griping about the bland dishes on the ship.

"Pasta salad, spaghetti, bow-tie pasta, penne," said Willie Delgado, 33, a Filipino laundry worker, as his lunch mates rolled their eyes. "That's why we miss our food."

At a sidewalk table, Rodrigo Francisco, 41, a waiter on the ship, scooped rice and pork offal with his fingers, the Filipino way, and pronounced the food as tasty as home-cooked. But, he quickly added, "No one can be as good a cook as your wife."

Although David is from Mumbai, he established a connection to the Philippines through his sister-in-law, Rowena David, who is from the northern mountain city of Baguio in the Philippines.

In spring 2010, Rowena, David and his brother, Hyen, opened a Filipino grocery store, restaurant and catering service in King of Prussia, Pa. They all had worked for years on ships — Rowena and Hyen met on a cruise — and knew the hardships faced by cruise ship employees, who spend up to 10 months a year away from home. They also knew what it was like to miss their own dishes.

So Benjamin David tried selling Filipino food at the docks in Baltimore, then Manhattan, but did not find success until he showed up in Brooklyn, his white Chevy Impala filled with Filipino sodas and chips.

"It was an immediate response," he said. "The first day I made close to $200."

Soon, David started taking a van on his trips from King of Prussia, and before long, customers were waiting for him, complaining when he was late, and putting in orders in advance for rice, stew and fish that his sister-in-law made back in Pennsylvania. Now he keeps the cruise ship calendar handy and drives a van loaded down with fragrant trays to Brooklyn when the boats are coming in.

Francisco said that as soon as he is back at sea, he begins counting the days until the return to the Brooklyn port.

"I think about what kind of fish they're cooking, what sauce. ..." He trailed off.

With the Caribbean Princess still looming over the street, a contingent of Romanian workers from the ship stopped by for grilled chicken and rice.

They said they enjoyed their Filipino lunch but had a question: Next time, maybe some grilled pork chops? With garlic sauce? Or other Romanian dishes?

"There are a lot of Romanians," said Christina Rotunjeanu, 28, a waitress onboard. "We spend a lot of money."






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