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Q&A: Celebrity Chefs Take Haute Cuisine to the High Seas
Home > Features > Q&A > Q&A: Celebrity Chefs Take Haute Cuisine to the High Seas
If you thought cruise-ship dining was all buffets and banquet dishes, think again. Today, many cruise lines team up with the world's best -- and, at the very least, most famous -- celebrity chefs. The result is fine-dining restaurants that rival those on land. Here, some of our favorite toques spout off about what it's like to join the fleet.

Charlie Palmer, Seabourn
Todd English, Cunard Line
Jacques Pepin, Oceania
Ettore Bocchia, Costa Cruises
Marco Pierre White, P&O Cruises

Charlie Palmer, Seabourn
Palmer's Michelin-starred Aureole restaurant has wowed New Yorkers since the 1980's, and now he has a portfolio of other restaurants and wine shops across the country. Like many of the other celebrity chefs who work with cruise lines, he also has several cookbooks and makes frequent TV appearances.

What is your arrangement with the cruise line, and when did you enter into this partnership?

We began our partnership in 2001, and myself and my team create the entire menu cycle for the ships. We do 21 days' worth of menus, with 14 dishes each day, including all the recipes. A lot of the dishes are translated from the [land-based] restaurants.

We also come up with new ideas for hors d'oeuvres and parties -- we have our fingers in everything, though we don't get that involved in breakfast and lunch. The team visits five times a year, but I don't go every time. I fly in for two or three days, rather than for a whole cruise -- like I do for our restaurants.

The chefs on the ship are required to come cook in the restaurants every few months and get a sense of what we do.

My challenge when I got onboard was to create a menu where people didn't want to eat caviar everyday (it's included but expensive for the line) because the regular menu was so good. I don't know what other ships' cost per person for food is, but ours is probably double (the cruise industry average) per person. The first day, everyone wants caviar, but then the novelty wears off. I love it when people say they couldn't decide what to have for dinner because everything sounded good.

Had you cruised before teaming up with a cruise line?

Only once -- I had been on a ship for four days as a guest.

I'm sure there were some challenges in converting your cuisine to dishes that could be served at sea. What were the difficulties and surprises?

Not really. The type of cooking we do on the ships is similar to what we do on our restaurants. It's a la carte cooking; it's not banquet cooking. When I first partnered with Seabourn, we changed the galley so that we could cook a la carte. When a guest orders fish, that's when the fish goes in the pan -- just like in a restaurant. It's fresh and immediate.

As far as equipment goes, they've made real strides.

The biggest challenge is changing the menu every day. You don't do that in a restaurant. But on a ship, every day has to be new and exciting because people are onboard for so long. We also have to plan ahead so that we can start making, for example, a foie gras terrine several days before we're going to put it on the menu.

How much time do you get to spend onboard, and do you come alone or bring friends and family?

I like to spend as much time on the ships with the chefs. I'm a big believer in efficiency.

In addition to cooking and working with the onboard team, what else do you do onboard?

I've done book signings, cooking classes, demonstrations and Q & A's, and I've also taken guests on tours, including once in a market in Lisbon. We've done interactive things on the ship in the kitchen. We dress up the kitchen and set up stations so that guests can watch it being done.

What do you like to do onboard when you're not working?

My wife has gone on a couple times with me, and we try to relax. We like to go to Venice and spend the day walking around and sample some restaurants.

What is your drink of choice when you have an evening off onboard?

I'm a big wine guy. I don't drink anything but wine, and I helped create the wine list onboard. The wines that we pour that are included are amazing wines -- they're not cheap crap that we got a deal on. Again, a lot of things we serve in the restaurant translate to the ship.

Buying wine on a ship is attractive, pricing-wise, because there's no tax. Guests can also buy a case of wines that we serve on the ship. We sell very high-end brands at a very attractive price. They can drink them onboard or take [bottles] home with them.

If you were going to book a cruise, what itinerary would you pick and why?

Around the boot -- somewhere in Italy, starting at Venice, and on to Lisbon, Portugal, Spain. These are interesting food places. Venice is an amazing city. It's surrounded by water, so I like to eat seafood there.

What are your favorite and least favorite things about cruising?

I am probably not the kind of person who could go on a 14-day cruise. I'm not that patient. But, it's been interesting to learn about cruising. I like to talk to captains about the inner workings of the hotel on water.

On the new ship, we had a lot to do with the design of the galley, and we got to really do it right. We were expanding from 200 guests to 400 guests, so we created a duplicate galley so that we could still do the same kind of cooking method. For them to give us that kind of square footage was amazing. The way they [the cruise line] think is the way I think, and hopefully that translates to popularity. Seabourn is much different than the big ships. It truly is a luxury yacht -- a different experience than a 1,000-passenger boat.

Editor's Note: Chef Charlie Palmer completed his role as Seabourn's Consulting Executive Chef in December 2011.

Todd English, Cunard Line
Celebrity chef Todd English doesn't just heat up a kitchen -- he's also been recognized as one of People Magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People." The winner of several James Beard Awards, he has turned his Charlestown, Massachusetts restaurant, Olives, into one of America's most recognizable national chains, with locations in far-flung cities like Tokyo. English also has a chain of Figs restaurants and several cookbooks and makes frequent TV appearances on shows like Food Network's "Iron Chef America" and NBC's "The Today Show." He joined Cunard in 2004.

What is your arrangement with the cruise line, and when did you enter into this partnership?

The arrangement that I have with Cunard is a license deal. I license my name and my team, and I go onboard to teach and develop recipes and menus along with training the staff. I personally get onboard a half a dozen times a year.

Had you cruised before teaming up with a cruise line?

I had cruised once or twice before the partnership, and I also had a couple guest chef appearances on various cruise lines.

What is your favorite dish from your onboard menu and why?

I honestly still order the Butternut Squash Tortelli because it is a signature item on the original Olives Restaurant menu, and it reminds me of home.

I'm sure there were some challenges in converting your cuisine to dishes that could be served at sea. What were the difficulties and surprises?

I am always surprised at how much of the food is fresh when you are on a cruise. They get fresh fruits and vegetables at every port, and everything is made onboard -- including the ice cream and all of the breads. And the kitchens are pretty amazing -- the only difference is that they use electric instead of gas.

How much time do you get to spend onboard, and do you come alone or bring friends and family?

I like to bring my family and friends with me -- especially other members of my culinary staff. We usually cruise or visit several times a year. My team also goes to visit when it is in select ports to check on the restaurant and work with the staff.

In addition to cooking and working with the onboard team, what else do you do onboard?

Sometimes I teach cooking classes, sometimes I give lectures, and sometimes I sign books. I usually do what I am told.

What do you like to do onboard when you're not working?

When I am not working? Oh, I like to steer the wheel and wear the captain's hat. Just kidding.

What is your drink of choice when you have an evening off onboard?

We have a great wine list onboard, so I normally sample some of the selections from that.

If you were going to book a cruise, what itinerary would you pick and why?

I think I would probably focus on the Mediterranean -- especially the Amalfi Coast. I love Positano and Capri, and I'll eat anything with lemons...the tomatoes and the fish are also amazing there.

What are your favorite and least favorite things about cruising?

My favorite thing about cruising is that I don't have to unpack and pack up again to see different places. A cruise ship is a moving hotel, and I love being on the ocean. My least favorite thing is when the captain takes the wheel back and makes me return his cap.

Jacques Pepin, Oceania
Famed French cookbook author and master chef Jacques Pepin is perhaps most well-known to many Americans for the TV show he starred in with Julia Child, "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home," though he has hosted many other cooking shows and authored 26 books, as well. Once the personal chef to French President Charles de Gaulle, Pepin currently lives in Connecticut and is a dean at Manhattan's French Culinary Institute.

What is your arrangement with the cruise line, and when did you enter into this partnership?

Since Oceania's inception, I have been executive culinary director for Oceania Cruises, working closely with its president and my friend Bob Binder. I will, in fact, open my first restaurant at sea onboard the new Marina, scheduled to launch in January 2011.

Had you cruised before teaming up with a cruise line?

Yes, I am an avid cruiser.

What is your favorite dish from your onboard menu and why?

The simple salmon or Free-Range Chicken with Roasted Herbs. These are simple dishes with the freshest ingredients available.

I'm sure there were some challenges in converting your cuisine to dishes that could be served at sea. What were the difficulties and surprises?

My greatest challenge onboard is ensuring proper humidity levels for croissants and acquiring high-quality ingredients when the ship may be in a remote region of the world.

There are no surprises with such a great team behind me.

How much time do you get to spend onboard, and do you come alone or bring friends and family?

Not as much as I would like. I enjoy cruising with my wife, Gloria, and best friend, Jean Claude, and his wife. Our daughter enjoys coming along when her schedule allows.

In addition to cooking and working with the onboard team, what else do you do onboard?

Cooking classes are always a joy to me.

What do you like to do onboard when you're not working?

As with my cooking, simple pleasures…. I love a great game of Ping-Pong. I enjoy the gym, swimming, reading [books] and strolling through local markets.

What is your drink of choice when you have an evening off onboard?

I love a glass of wine.

If you were to book a cruise, what itinerary would you pick and why?

I enjoy the beauty of the Mediterranean because of its culinary culture, from the Greek Isles to the French Riviera. Superb wine and local markets throughout the region.

What are your favorite and least favorite things about cruising?

Meeting new friends and sharing my passion for cooking. I always hate to go home.

Ettore Bocchia, Costa Cruises
Bocchia is the young chef behind the Michelin-starred Mistral restaurant at Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio on Italy's Lake Como. Known for his Italian take on molecular gastronomy, he teamed with Costa in 2006 to helm their 100-seat, reservation-only Club Restaurants.

What is your arrangement with the cruise line, and when did you enter into this partnership?

In 2006, I started the collaboration with Costa Cruises, for the conduct of a restaurant on one ship. Now I sign the menus of all gourmet restaurants in the fleet, and [in] 2008, Costa decided to create the role of food research and development manager, which consists [of] giving my support to help [improve] food onboard at all levels, organization of the kitchen layouts and the sourcing of raw materials.

Had you cruised before teaming up with a cruise line?

No. In fact, in my life, I have spent very little time [on] vacation, dedicating all my free time trying to develop my skills by traveling around the world and studying different food techniques.

What is your favorite dish from your onboard menu and why?

I can't say I have a favorite one, since all the menus are based on dishes I [also] regularly serve in Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, and none was a compromise choice.

I'm sure there were some challenges in converting your cuisine to dishes that could be served at sea. What were the difficulties and surprises?

One challenge has been to bring liquid nitrogen onboard to freeze ice cream in front of the guests. Apart from that, I didn't find big issues, but I am conscious that you have to face objective limitations of being in the middle of the sea. If you forget to buy an onion, you can't stop the ship to get one!

How much time do you get to spend onboard, and do you come alone or bring friends and family?

Per year, you can consider I spend 16 months onboard! In fact, I have my own team going for long periods onboard and managing my restaurants in order to be able to guarantee the standards we have fixed. Apart from that, of course, I go personally each time it is necessary, as well as for surprise visits.

In addition to cooking and working with the onboard team, what else do you do onboard?

Transmitting my know-how to the operational team onboard is my first concern, and we do all that is possible to make it possible; therefore, yes, I give lectures to my colleagues.

What do you like to do onboard when you're not working?

For me, it is impossible not to work onboard, nor for any client I work for.

What is your drink of choice when you have an evening off onboard?

There is a great cellar onboard...Costa; therefore, since I enjoy very good wine, I probably enjoy a glass of Amarone.

If you were going to book a cruise, what itinerary would you pick and why?

Every region has its charms, and all depends in which period of the year you are traveling. I guess anywhere I would expect to have enjoyable but healthy food, I can easily assimilate and feel happy with eating it for the period of the cruise. This means definitely having great raw materials and [optimizing] its cooking by [capturing] the essence of it.

What are your favorite and least favorite things about cruising?

For someone doing this job, the favorite thing is to see clients' satisfaction, and, of course, the worst is a client unsatisfied. But, thankfully, with Costa Crociere, this happens very seldom, and surprises are mostly very positive.

Marco Pierre White, P&O
A lion in the UK's restaurant scene, White was the first Brit to be awarded three Michelin stars. Widely known in the U.S., as well, White was Mario Batali's mentor and has a big personality -- he has a reputation for throwing diners out of his restaurant. He also hosted the American cooking competition show, "The Chopping Block," which aired on NBC.

True to form, White agreed to answer our questions -- then rewrote them and answered his own.

When did you first develop your interest in cooking and what was it that attracted you?

I believe my love for cooking started as a very young boy, sitting on the kitchen surface, watching my mother cook dinner or sitting at the table in Italy while my great-grandmother, aunt and mother prepared the vegetables for minestrone and preparing the meatballs. Mum died when I was 6 and I spent the next ten years of my life in nature, at the Harewood estate [near his hometown of Leeds], fishing, shooting, rabbiting; that's where my love for mother nature started. I think all chefs who cook well have an affinity with mother nature, a natural respect. Without realizing it, there was this love affair with mother nature and with natural produce.

What was your big break?

In the afternoons at the Hotel St. George, I used to help clean the guests' shoes. One day, on the seat was an Egon Ronay guide to restaurants and hotels in Great Britain. That's when I realized that restaurants had stars. I never knew this. And, that's when I realized that the finest restaurant in Britain at that time was the Box Tree in Ilkley.

I thought to myself, "Why am I working here, when the best restaurant in the country is down the road?" So, one day, I plucked up the courage, and I went to the Box Tree and approached them for a job.

They gave me the longest interview in my life -- two and a half hours. I got my job and that's where my dream began, my love affair with the great French restaurants of the 50's, 60's and 70's and classical cuisine. To this day, I have never walked into a restaurant as special and as magical as the Box Tree.

The boys at the Box Tree would always go the great restaurants in France, so they would tell me stories about the great restaurants of the world. And then they would talk about going every month to London to dine at the Connaught and Le Gavroche.

They admitted that they were not as good as the Le Gavroche. I thought to myself: "For them to say they were not as good as Le Gavroche, it must be good." So, I wrote to the Le Gavroche for a job, and they sent an application in French, and I could not understand it.

Instead, I went for a job at Chewton Glen in the New Forest in Hampshire, but by the time I got back to London, I had missed by coach from Victoria back to Yorkshire.

As I had to walk the streets around Victoria, I found myself in Lower Sloane Street, walked past this restaurant, and I looked inside and thought, that looks posh, that looks smart, that looks sophisticated. I looked above the door, and it had the name Le Gavroche.

So I thought to myself, once again, knock on the back door. In the morning, I went to knock on the back door. The pastry chef opened the door, and I asked to see Mr. Albert Roux, but he said he wasn't there because they did not open for lunch in those days.

I was sent to the back of beyond in Wandsworth Road. I walked up there and saw this scruffy little office saying "ROUX" on it. I walked in the door, and who should be sitting there at the desk but Albert Roux. I said I was looking for a job, told him my story and he gave me a job.

So that advice my dear father gave me years ago about knocking on doors worked amazingly for me. Knocking on doors and having the confidence to present yourself in your Sunday best works.

You then went on to have your own restaurant -- Harveys in Wandsworth Common, London. How did it feel when you won your first Michelin star?

I got my first star in January 1988. I was over the moon. In January 1990, Harveys' entry was two stars. It was the first restaurant for six years to be elevated from one star to two stars. So, I became part of that top echelon; I had joined my bosses. I was a product of those individuals.

It was quite amazing being a young man of 28 years old; it was extraordinary. The third one came along in January 1995 at the Restaurant Marco Pierre White at the Hyde Park Hotel. I became the first British chef to ever win three stars and the youngest chef in the world. It had been a 17-year journey to win three stars.

What is your food philosophy?

I believe cooking is a philosophy, not a recipe, unless it is pastry, then it becomes chemistry. Great chefs have three things in common. Firstly, that they accept that mother nature is the true artist and they are the chef. Secondly, everything they do is an extension of themselves as a person. Thirdly, they give insight into the world they were born into, the world that inspired them and they show it off on their plates.

I like food at its purest. I like fresh crab with delicious mayonnaise, I like gulls eggs with salt and mayo, I like roast chicken, good roast beef. I like food very simple. You should always allow food to show itself off. Allow mother nature to be the star and show herself off. Don't overwork food.

My love of food and my love of all things Italian are inherent in me; they are in my genes. The greatest culinary influence in my life came from my very beautiful and very Italian mother, a natural-born cook. Her family lived just outside Genoa, where I used to spend my summer holidays as a little boy. My earliest memories are of my mother taking me home for lunch where we would sit together and giggle and eat steaming bowls of risotto, pasta and thick hearty soups made with root vegetables, pulses and a little rice and Parmesan.

She steered clear of fussy food and heavy sauces, and sometimes lunch would be very ripe tomatoes with a little sea salt, olive oil and bread and cheese. Her food philosophy was to buy the best quality that you can afford and to let the flavors speak for themselves. Today, this remains my philosophy; simplicity is the key to greatness. A steaming bowl of risotto is, to me, an ideal dish and one to which, when you have perfected the technique, you can add an infinite number of flavors. Heaven in a bowl.

What about working with P&O Cruises? It was a big departure for you.

All my life, I've loved a challenge; all my life I've loved ships, from [the time I was] a little boy reading about the history of The Normandie, the most glamorous ship ever built at its time. I've always had a fascination with ships. One of my favorite pastimes as a child was fishing from boats off the East Coast for cod, so I've had a love affair with the sea.

I had a certain perception of cruising, but when I went on my first cruise on Ventura, it was like a giant resort on the sea, quite amazing. Would I take my children on a holiday on a cruise in the Mediterranean or Caribbean? Yes I would; they would explore the whole ship and find it totally fascinating.

They are sort of fun palaces; that's what I would describe them as. What I like about cruises is that they are very romantic with a sense of occasion. At the same time, you just collapse and chill. It's fun, therapeutic, it's relaxing, it's stress-free, as everything is done for you. It was actually like being in a five-star hotel, such was the quality of the staff; nothing was too much trouble.

What about the onboard dining experience?

I'm fascinated; there's classicism about it, which I like. The organization is extraordinary. It's so authentic. The food is really appetizing.

What do you bring to P&O Cruises?

What you really want is a good diet. Sunshine flavors, Mediterranean dining, the cuisine of the sun.

We have a 250-seater restaurant on Ventura, for example, so automatically it will be less formal dining. There is a casual feel. It provides understated quality. Sitting down with friends and family eating doesn't have to be expensive to enjoy gastronomy. It's the food I want to eat.

I am offering another dimension. It's about me saying: "This is me, this is what I am all about." It's open-air, relaxed, with half of the restaurant under the stars. I want to inject a bit of fun and bit of living. It's about life. You are on holiday. Enjoy yourselves. Let's do away with the formality. But, it's about quality, that's what we are saying.

What are your favorite places?

Jamaica, Jersey, Venice and Bardolino, my mother's village in Italy.

A cruise is the most glorious way to experience the cuisine of the world in two weeks. It is, in essence, a gourmet tour of the finest, the most authentic, the freshest and the most local dishes, which will have you desperate to return for more.

Don't be drawn into the most sophisticated, shiny restaurants. Whilst they are very often excellent, they can also be overpriced tourist haunts. Far better to sit at the bar in Da Michele in Naples, really a workman's cafe, but the original home of pizza. Only two types are available -- margarita and marinara -- and one of those, washed down with a beer in a paper cup will be a taste which will live with you forever.

Or, how about crab cakes charred on the barbecue in St. Maarten, the half Dutch, half French island? Those and a grilled lobster whilst sitting on the beach [have to be memories] to covet. Real soul food can be found at the Roti King in St. John's, Antigua. Choose a rich, sweet chicken curry in flatbread with Susie's Hot Sauce.

Nearer [to] home, sit at the bar at Cal Pep in Barcelona, and savor the most delectable tapas you can imagine. Each tiny dish is a joy. And, while these local haunts are well worth noting in your address book, for absolute decadence, save up for a Bellini and a plate of carpaccio in Harry's Bar in Venice, and watch the world go by. Heaven.

I had probably one of the best fish meals of my life with a friend in the fish market in Vigo. We just asked for a selection of specialties and had the most wonderful baby octopus in fresh tomato sauce; we had Galician seafood stew, the best paella and the freshest gambas, simply roasted.

What is most intriguing about operating restaurants on a cruise ship?

I have owned many restaurants but never one on a ship. To me, the sea is romantic and dangerous and provides a challenge. My restaurant on Ventura, in particular, is the realization of a dream. When I was a boy, I longed to go to sea, and even now I feel a tranquility and peace when I am by the water. The White Room on Ventura enables me to spend time at sea and allows me to use seasonal produce to create memorable dishes. Sitting on the terrace of The White Room watching a Caribbean or Mediterranean sunset is a magical moment, and if I have helped in a small way to create these moments for passengers, then I am very pleased.

I have made a commitment to P&O Cruises. It is my name above the door and my reputation. I have first-hand involvement in all aspects of the restaurants on Ventura, on Oceana and Aurora. I chose the cutlery and the tableware, designed the menu and chose the dishes to suit the experience, the climate and the seasons. I travel at least six times a year to see how my chefs are doing, to speak to passengers and to ensure that everything is running smoothly.

--by Sherri Eisenberg, Cruise Critic contributor


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