Star Chef Charlie Palmer Brings Haute Cuisine to Cruising
For nearly 10 years, restaurateur, cookbook author and Michelin-star recipient Charlie Palmer, has worked with the Yachts of Seabourn to bring the best of fine dining to the cruise line's fleet of six ultra-luxury yachts. He recently filled Cruise Critic in on what it takes to bring modern, upscale, made-to-order cuisine to the high seas, and even shared a scrumptious recipe. Here's what he had to say on cruising, cooking, kitchen logistics and more:
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.
For a preview of what you might find onboard, try out this salmon recipe courtesy of Palmer, complete with wine pairing:
Crisp-Skinned Salmon with Lemon-Dill Cream, Roasted Cauliflower, Capers & Radicchio
Serve with a Pinot Noir from Sonoma
From Charlie Palmer's Practical Guide to The New American Kitchen
1 Cup Creme Fraiche
1 Tbsp. Chopped Fresh Dill
1 Tbsp. Snipped Chives
Zest and Juice of 1 Lemon
2 (6-oz) Salmon Fillets, About 1 1/2 Inches Thick, Skin On
Roasted Cauliflower, Capers and Radicchio
1 ½ Tbsp. Unsalted Butter
3 Cups Cauliflower Florets
1 Tbsp. Capers, Drained
½ Head Radicchio, Cut Crosswise into Thick Strips
Using a whisk, whip the creme fraiche to medium-stiff peaks, then fold in the dill, chives, lemon zest and juice. Season with salt and white pepper. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a plate with paper towels.
Film the bottom of a nonstick saute pan with oil and heat over high heat until it just begins to smoke. Season the fillets with salt and pepper and place them skin-side down in the pan. Shake the pan to let oil flow under the skin. Cook over high heat until the edges of the skin begin to brown, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for three minutes longer, giving the pan a gentle shake now and then.
Transfer the pan to the oven and cook the fillets for another five minutes (don't turn them).
Take the fillets out of the oven, turn them with a fish spatula, and transfer them to the prepared plate to drain.
Roasted Cauliflower, Capers, and Radicchio
Melt the butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the cauliflower and saute lightly, coating the florets in the but¬ter. Continue to cook, tossing frequently, until the cauliflower is lightly browned and tender, about seven minutes. Add the capers and season with salt and white pepper to taste.
Toss in the radicchio and saute, shaking the pan, just until the radicchio wilts.
Stay tuned for parts two through five in our five-part series on celebrity chefs at sea!
--by Sherri Eisenburg, Cruise Critic Contributor, with additional reporting by Shayne Rodriguez Thompson, Web Content Producer