by Paul Motter, CruiseMates Editor
September 25, 2009
I will admit I have paid limited attention to the culinary claims of cruise lines in the past. I knew I liked the food, but I never wondered if it is truly the gourmet quality they claim. The truth is that I never felt fully qualified to render an opinion. But now that CruiseMates has organized its first culinary cruise, to sail Oct. 30, 2010 with Chef Matt Sigel, my eyes have been opened to the intracacies of cruise line cuisine.
Matt is a talanted chef who was also a contestant on Fox's "Hell's Kitchen." We are also very fortunate to have a new contributor to CruiseMates, the very highly regarded Janice Wald Henderson of Los Angeles. Janice is a longtime contributor to Bon Appétit Magazine and a dining editor for Epicurious.com. A former resident of both France and New York City, Janice hobnobs with the best chefs in the world and is a true authority.
I am not an accomplished gourmand, but with the help of Janice and Matt I have learned a great deal about the cruise line affiliated chefs. And here is the truth; the more I learn the more impressed I become. By the end of this article you will know what I mean, So, let's get started.
Cruise Line Celebrity Chefs
Let's start with the "consulting chefs" to whom most cruise lines claim an affiliation. The stature of these chefs should surprise you as many of them qualify as "world's best" in one way or another. They are not only highly awarded; they have also owned or managed some of the most famous restaurants in the world.
We will discuss each of these chefs in detail, but first let's examine the specific role and level of commitment of these consulting chefs, because this article wouldn't matter if they were being used in name only.
A consulting chef is usually called in when a new ship comes online or a new onboard restaurant is opened. The chefs must create original recipes that can be prepared successfully and consistently within the limitations of cruise ship kitchens, also known as galleys. The recipes also must consider the delivery schedule of fresh ingredients, the number of kitchen workers, their roles and the number of people who must be fed at any given meal.
After the menu creation process, the consulting chef must train the onboard chefs and kitchen staff on how execute the new recipes. This training may be done on land or in the actual cruise ship galley.
Just in case anyone is now thinking, "But these guys aren't actually cooking my food," in reality executive chefs rarely do. Their job is to create, train and supervise, much like Gordon Ramsey on Hell's Kitchen. Much like any successful modern artist.
But this does bring up an important point. It is helpful to know when the consulting chef last did his training because his influence can wane with time. The onboard staff can gradually adapt their own style to recipes, and food budgets and suppliers can also change. So, in addition to introducing these chefs to you, we will also examine the level of their commitment and when they last worked directly with a cruise line.
Rating the Celebrity Chefs
How truly accomplished are the celebrity chefs the cruise lines brag about? One way to find out is to examine their resumes, restaurants, books and awards.
There are plenty of culinary awards including James Beard, Food & Wine Magazine, AAA and Zagats. There are also culinary organizations that demand certain quality standards, like Cordon Bleu and Relais and Chateaux. But without a doubt the most coveted award by the chefs themselves are Michelin Stars.
Michelin awards from one to three stars, with most restaurants not getting any. Getting a single star is a reason for celebration. I live in a major city where there is not a single Michelin star in town, But to be fair, Michelin only started giving stars to U.S. restaurants two years ago.
In the U.S., the James Beard Foundation awards are among the most prestigious. Called "the father of American cooking," James Beard was one of the first celebrity chefs in the U.S. He wrote the first cookbook on outdoor cooking in 1942 and appeared on NBC in 1946. Like many great chefs, Beard's talents exploded when he moved to New York City where he established his first cooking school in 1955. He later wrote "Beard on Bread" and "Beard on Pasta." (For the record, Beard only had a mustache). Food and Wine Magazine and Bon Appétit also give out awards on a regular basis.
These awards are important talent indicators, but in truth all of the chefs in this article have been singled out by James Beard and the others so Michelin is the one we also consider the most. Here is another extremely simple way to evaluate a chef; just ask, "Is he French?"
It sounds cliché, but the French created the culinary arts and even invented restaurants. In a French family, mother (mère) is the "chef d' cuisine" supervising shopping for fresh produce and the preparation of mise en place - ingredients made ready for cooking. To be French trained is one thing, but growing up in France is better, growing up on a food-producing farm is better still, and best is all the above plus learning to cook at a young age.
Janice Wald Henderson, who can describe the indigenous ingredients and unique culinary style of each French province, says, "The French have great palates because their provincial lifestyle is immersed in fresh ingredients. They buy their produce daily at the farmer's market and would never miss a visit to the boulangerie for freshly baked bread on the way home."
Does This Make Cruise Ship Food Gourmet?
Chef Matt Sigel dominated the palate contest when he was on the Hell's Kitchen TV show, so we asked what he thinks of cruise line food. Matt has only been on one cruise - on Carnival - but this is what he said: "When I tasted the food on Carnival I was blown away. I heard cruise food was good, but I never expected it to be that good."
Matt was referring to the most mainstream cruise line, Carnival, while Janice has mostly sailed on luxury cruise lines. Still, Matt was right on target. Carnival's consulting chef is a culinary icon, Georges Blanc. Blanc is to cuisine as Leonard Bernstein is to conducting.
This is what Matt had to say: "Blanc is a god among French chefs. Some of the best chefs ever came out of his kitchens." Carnival described the active involvement of Georges Blanc as recently as June 2008 when he designed many signature dishes for both in the main dining room and the Supper Club. He also hosted several Carnival chefs at his world famous Vonnas Spa in France for training in his own kitchens.
Another "cruise line celebrity chef" trained under Georges Blanc, Daniel Boulud consulted for Cunard Lines when the Queen Mary 2 was coming out. Boulud started working for Blanc when he was just 18 years old. Boulud is considered one of the world's best chefs today, and if you ever watch television cooking shows you have seen him many times.
But Carnival's chef name dropping is modest compared with other lines. The most famous celebrity chef affiliation ever was between Michel Roux and Celebrity Cruises, which lasted 15 years and ended in 2006.
Roux, a Michelin star chef, designed all of Celebrity's menus. His name was so closely affiliated with the line they eventually put Michel Roux gift shops aboard their ships. You could buy his cookbooks, his branded kitchen utensils and even a cast iron Michel Roux stove for about $12,000 dollars (including delivery) onboard.
How good was Michel Roux? "He's a true culinary genius" says Janice Wald Henderson.
Celebrity never explained why its affiliation with Roux ended. He was eventually replaced with a younger chef, Jacques Van Staden. "Jacques is a South African who learned to cook in his Italian mother's kitchen," said Matt. "He is a rising star."
Still, no self-respecting chef would ever lend his name to a cuisine that does not enhance his reputation.
What Challenges Confront These Chefs?
Consulting chefs are far too busy and famous to work on cruise ships; they cannot even work in every restaurant they own in most cases. Still, no self-respecting chef would ever lend his name to a cuisine that does not enhance his reputation.
Cruise ships present peculiar limitations to these chefs. They have very strict fire prevention and cleanliness requirements monitored by government agencies such as the Coast Guard and the CDC. Open flames on charcoal grills or wood-fired stoves are out of the question. If a ship starts rocking sharp utensils and even deep fryers can become lethal objects.
When a ship carrying 3,000 passengers prepares up to 15,000 meals per day, the chef's challenge is to create recipes that do not taste mass-produced. Some items can always be prepared in advance, but some menu items only taste right when they are prepared a la minute.
The cruise lines employ hundreds of food preparers. In addition to people who create salads, pastry and other items that can be prepared before the meal, there is usually one cook for each menu item that must be served as soon as it is cooked. A modern cruise ship galley can produce thousands of individually prepared portions for each meal on the spot - filets, baked hens, poached fish, lobster, baked Alaska and so on.
Over the years cruise lines have figured out ways to prepare almost any kind of dish, even though it might not always be done the usual way. For example, instead of open-flame ranges cruise ships rely heavily on induction (magnetic cookers) that can warm a pan to 800 degrees in under a minute.
Another limitation of cruise ship food is that ingredients cannot be delivered daily. Most ships are provisioned at the beginning of each cruise - not only for logistic and cost reasons, but for the equally important need to manage quality control.
Cruise ships present significant challenges to these cerative chefs, yet when all is said and done, does this mean they consider cruise ships to be second class venues for food presentation? Apparently not; in his book, "Notes to a Young Chef" Daniel Boulud refers to cruise ships as one of the more rewarding jobs a professional chef can take.
Who are the Celebrity Chefs?
Along with my own research, I and asked Matt and Janice for their impressions about each of the cruise line consulting chefs. It says a lot that both of them had some knowledge and impressions about every single one of them.
Number one on Matt's List is Daniel Boulud. When Matt first met Daniel, he recalled he was so nervous he shook like a leaf. Boulud was born on a farm in France in 1955. He worked in his great-grandparents' restaurant. At age 17 Boulud was already a rising star, and by 18 he was working in Paris for Georges Blanc at a Michelin three-star restaurant. Boulud eventually became the executive chef at Le Cirque, one of New York's most famous restaurants. He now owns Daniel in New York - famous for the world's most expensive hamburger at $28.
Sadly, Boulud doesn't currently have a close affiliation with a cruise line. When I asked Cunard I was told his involvement peaked just after Queen Mary 2 was introduced in 2004. When Cunard decided to put a chef "namesake" restaurant on its ships, it chose the American chef Todd English.
"Todd English is a very popular chef," Matt Sigel said, "but he is equally known for his good looks." Todd has a strong following in New England, thanks to a PBS-produced cooking show called "Food Trip with Todd English." When I sailed on Queen Mary 2, I personally thought the food was better in the Princess Grill than in the Todd English restaurant. "A lot of people say that," said a Cunard staff person.
Like many French chefs, Boulud and our next chef both grew up on farms that grew the food they eventually learned to cook. This is one of the keystone concepts in gourmet food: freshness. Whether animal or vegetable, the origin of your ingredients determines the success of your recipe. Matt says he intends to stress this concept during our CruiseMates Culinary Cruise.
It not creates a lower carbon footprint to raise animals under cruelty-free conditions, it makes them taste better. A free-range chicken that has never swallowed a growth hormone or antibiotic will exude more natural juicy flavor than a mass-produced one. Additionally, if you can catch and cook that poulet while it is still fresh even better.
When I visited France, I ate in small-town restaurants with gardens and live animals on the premises, and the meals were amazing. Naturally, most restaurants do not have this luxury, but they do have access to fresh food daily. Even some cruise ships now boast free-range hen on their menus. Naturally, this is something you would want try early in your cruise when it is fresher.
Like so many aspects of cruising, we hear a lot about cuisine but may not lend it an extraordinary amount of attention.
It is no surprise that Number 2 on Matt's list of cruise ship chefs is another French icon, Jacques Pepin of Oceania Cruises. CruiseMates has always said Oceania has great food and now we have proof.
"Pepin is a classic and I am dying to meet him," Matt said. Janice Wald Henderson remarked that "Jacques Pepin is an institution." Pepin also grew up on a farm in France, then prospered in Paris and was once the personal chef to Charles De Gaulle. After moving to America he shared a TV cooking show with Julia Child.
"I once saw a live cooking demonstration with Jacques," said Janice," where he peeled and minced a garlic clove and received a standing ovation - just for his style. That's the level of his expertise."
Although Pepin has been a celebrity chef for decades (he is 73), he has never had a "namesake" restaurant before. His first will be "Jacques," a small (80 seat) restaurant aboard Oceania's new 450-passenger "Marina" scheduled to debut in 2010.
Like all great chefs, Pepin is obsessed with fresh ingredients. Oceania's Jacques dining room will offer some of Pepin's signature dishes such as pumpkin soup a l'Anglaise served in a pumpkin shell, fresh Mussels Marinière, freshly roasted free range chicken, duck, and lamb.
Pepin claims he has taken groups of Oceania passengers shopping in local markets, and says he hopes to offer a chef's specials prepared from fresh ingredients purchased in local markets at the ship's ports of call whenever possible.
This is not to say Pepin will be cooking on the ship regularly, but it appears he will be onboard more often than most celebrity chefs. He will design the menu and recipes, select the china and flatware and even hang his original artwork on the walls. Janice speculates that Pepin, now the "elder statesman," is more willing to devote himself to a singular interest than a younger chef more concerned with promoting his brand.
Next up on Matt's List is a New York institution, Charlie Palmer, who works with luxury line Seabourn. Palmer started Aureole in Bryant Park on West 42nd Street in New York, a top award-winning New York restaurant for years. He now has a dozen restaurants coast to coast plus a hotel and a housewares specialty store.
Seabourn just put the new Seabourn Odyssey into service in the summer of 2009. Palmer said he helped with the galley design for the new ship and created original recipes for all of its restaurants.
Crystal Cruises, owned by one of the world's largest shipping companies, NHK of Japan, has number four on Matt's list; the famous Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa. The "Silk Road" restaurants on Serenity and Symphony are excellent Asian fusion restaurants with Nobu cuisine. Nobu is known to visit one ship or the other at length about once a year.
Janice explained his personal magic to me. "Nobu was trained as a Japanese sushi chef, but something special happened when he moved to Peru," she said. "The Peruvians have their own sushi-like cuisine based on ceviche, a cold fish soup that relies on citric acids to 'cook' the soup." Nobu was able to combine his sushi background with the Peruvian style of raw fish treatment and invent an entirely new cuisine.
Being from Los Angeles, Janice is also impressed with Crystal's other alternative restaurant, Prego, influenced by Piero Selvaggio. Piero is not a chef but a restaurateur who brought modern Northern Italian cooking to Los Angeles. "Not spaghetti and meatballs, but modern Italian cooking," she says. This includes risotto, seafood, veal and lamb.
Number five on Matt's list is Georges Blanc, mentioned above, as consulting chef to Carnival Cruise Lines. Blanc has maintained a 3-Star Michelin rating for 25 years and has Relais and Chateaux credentials. Matt placed him at number five because Georges is very traditional, being older and residing in France.
Relais and Chateaux is a French culinary and hospitality organization that gives awards to outstanding individual hotels and restaurants worldwide. According to Janice, "They generally give their awards to smaller boutique restaurants, often historic places such as castles and historic inns that have done an extraordinary job in creating a gourmet experience. I would eat at a Relais and Chateaux restaurant anywhere in the world."
They will never give their stamp of approval to a chain of hotels, but one cruise line has earned Relais and Chateaux certification: Silversea Cruises.
A competitor to Silversea, Regent Seven Seas, has the Cordon Bleu certification. Cordon Bleu is one of the world's oldest culinary institutions, as old as the middle ages, but the culinary standards were first established in the late 1800s. There are now Cordon Bleu schools worldwide, which Matt says has overexerted the name somewhat. Regent also works closely with Canyon Ranch Spa to create healthy dining options.
Career Cruise Line Chefs
Rather than hiring a part-time celebrity chef as a consultant, some cruise lines have executive chefs who are also fulltime food and beverage managers.
Karl Muhlberger is a chef who has worked aboard Silversea, became the head corporate chef for Cunard soon after Queen Mary 2 was launched and is now director of culinary operations for Norwegian Cruise Lines.
Rudi Sodamin is another executive chef who has worked in the cruise industry almost forever. He started out on NCL's Vistafjord when he was 23. He now works for Holland America but has also worked for Cunard and Royal Caribbean in the past. Rudi has worked for every major cruise corporation. Rudy has his own cooking school and has written 10 cookbooks, including "Easy and Elegant Cooking" and "A Taste of Excellence."
Princess takes a different approach. Each ship has its own executive chef who is responsible for menu creation. This means the cuisine is more tailored to the region where each ship is cruising - a nice touch, but it also means a little less creativity in terms of cutting edge cuisine. Princess tends to have good, basic food.
Consulting and Executive Chefs
There are many titles of chefs in the culinary world, and naturally they are not exact. I have been using "consulting chef" because the celebrity chefs mentioned above do not work on the ships, but in their own kitchens they would be "Chef de Cuisine," a title for a chef who invents original recipes and menus.
An "executive chef" is usually the one chef in a kitchen who is in charge of making sure everyone is doing their job. Another title for this person is "head chef."
But a "chef de cuisine" may or may not work in the same restaurant nightly, while the world-famous consulting chefs may design the recipes on cruise ships, the question of their continuing influence still remains. "I think you can safely say it runs the gamut," says Janice.
Even if you walk into a "name" restaurant on a cruise ship, like the coming "Jacques" named after Jacques Pepin on the new Oceania Marina, it is unlikely (although not impossible) that Pepin himself will be in the galley supervising.
One of the few restaurants that will have a celebrity Chef de Cuisine onboard full time will be the new Oasis of the Seas. Royal Caribbean has hired Keriann Von Raesfeld for the alternative restaurant 150 Central Park onboard.
Von Raesfeld is not yet of the stature of most of the other chefs in this article, but at only 23 she is the first American and the first woman to win the title "Best Young Cook in the World" at the World Association of Chefs Societies Congress held in Dubai in May 2008. She also led Team USA to its first gold medal at the Scothot Competition in Scotland. She was also a part of the Team USA's regional team that won their first ever gold medal at the Culinary Olympics in Germany.
She will be designing the entire menu for 150 Central Park. A $35 surcharge for an unlimited menu makes this one of the best gourmet bargains in the world. I will be one of the first people to try her restaurant in its full glory with my reservation already set for December 3, the third night of the first revenue cruise.
Summing Up Cruise Ship Cuisine
So, how much influence do these celebrity chefs have over the cruise lines? My research suggests that while it runs the gamut, on average it is probably more than you would expect. These are not just branding opportunities for clever marketers; these chefs care about their reputations - which are only as good as the last meal created in their names.
The chefs with the most cruise line involvement appear to be Keriann von Raesfeld first as the only onboard Chef de Cuisine in the group. Jacques Pepin of Oceania is very compelling since in recent interviews his namesake cruise ship restaurant is the only project he talks about.
We also know that Nobu and Selvaggio travel on Crystal on a regular basis. And even though the main dining rooms on Crystal do not have celebrity chefs, the food there is still some of the best in the cruise industry.
Since Seabourn just put Odyssey online we have heard Charlie Palmer saying he was involved in designing the galleys as well as the cuisine.
Georges Blanc's affiliation with Carnival was just reaffirmed a year ago.
Unfortunately, Daniel Boulud's (one of the best) affiliation with Cunard appears to be over. Many knowledgeable gourmands say Boulud deserved to have a namesake restaurant onboard Cunard ships rather than Todd English, but it didn't work out that way.
I can't wait for the CruiseMates Culinary Cruise with Chef Matt Sigel on Norwegian Epic, departing Oct. 30, 2010. Matt opened my eyes to the world of cruise line cuisine - an area I didn't focus on much before. I also want to thank Janice Wald Henderson, based in Los Angeles as a regular writer for Bon Appétit Magazine.
Our final piece of advice, as Janice Wald Henderson points out, is to look to the alternative restaurants onboard for the most amazing, cutting edge cuisine on cruise ships. Cruise lines have to be very careful about changing the food in the main dining rooms, which means consistently good food in many cases but with far stricter limits on experimentation.
And remember, even in an alternative restaurant you can't beat the price of gourmet food on a cruise ship. A meal from most of these chefs will cost you more than $120 per person onshore, especially if you include wine. On a cruise ship, few restaurants cost more than $30 per person, and the main dining rooms are always free.
About CruiseMates: CruiseMates is an independently owned and editorially unbiases "Internet Cruise Magazine and Cruise Information Guidebook" offering accurate and up-to-the-minute cruise information and providing a place for cruise enthusiasts to meet.
You can read more of Paul's articles and keep up with his blog at www.cruisemates.com.
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