Pack your knives and go… on a cruise? In Celebrity’s ongoing campaign to attract sophisticated foodies to the line, it has teamed with the Bravo TV for an ongoing Top Chef partnership. For the next year, all ships will hold activities inspired by the popular cooking show, such as QuickFire Challenges and demos, as well as a Top Chef night in the main dining room, where dishes from the show are served.
In addition, four Top Chef themed cruises featuring “cheftestants” from the show onboard are taking place in 2014. The sailings are on a variety of itineraries, from Bermuda and Alaska cruises to Spain and the Mediterranean cruises.
We’ve been spending this week on the line’s maiden Top Chef cruise, a seven-night sailing to Bermuda on Celebrity Summit. Here are the things that stood out to us and things that still need to be improved.
Chefs. Each Top Chef theme cruise has three former cheftestants onboard; for our sailing, that group comprised Spike Mendelsohn, Ash Fulk and Angelo Sosa. It proved to be an interesting mix of personalities: Spike played up his bad boy image — marijuana jokes were abundant — while Angelo, with his model good looks, rarely appeared on deck in a shirt with sleeves. Ash, who has mostly eschewed the reality TV spotlight since his stint on the show, served as the adult in the room. All three were personable and seemed genuinely pleased to talk to fans, answer questions about the show and life as a chef, and pose for photos.
Interaction. Opportunities to meet the chefs took place every sea day — and if you wanted more time to mingle, you could purchase a private cooking class or dinner (more on these below). Because the chefs were onboard for most of the week, it was also easy to run into them around the ship; Spike and Angelo partied at night in Revelations Lounge, while Ash and his family dined most nights in the main dining room. None seemed bothered when people came up to them; as Ash put it, “If you’re going to be on a reality show, don’t get annoyed when people recognize you from a reality show.”
Daytime Activities. Each chef did a public cooking demonstration in the ship’s theater, where they took questions as they prepared dishes. Passengers kept the queries coming, and you ended up learning as much about what it takes to be a professional chef as you did about the cheftestants.
But the real hit was the series of QuickFire Challenges, where passengers performed tasks that the cheftestants had to do on the show. Each chef led a team of two, egging them on, as the audience — a full house — hooted and hollered. The winner went on to a QuickFire finale on the sailing’s last day. Celebrity will be rolling this activity out to all of its ships, with executive chefs serving as team leaders on regular sailings. It’s a nice addition for a line that’s already focused on culinary arts, and it could be a big success.
Cooking Classes. For an extra fee, passengers could sign up for a 20-person cooking session with one of the cheftesants. While the cost is steep — $150 per person — the two-hour classes turned out to be well worth it. Besides having the chance to actually prepare and plate a dish in the ship’s galley, participants received a Top Chef apron and chef’s torque, and sat down with the chef to a three-course meal in Normandie, Summit’s alternative French restaurant.
Members of my family and I went to all three of the classes. The first, with Angelo Sosa, proved to be a good chance to see what the wise-cracking chef was really all about, in terms of his food. We prepared a Latin-inspired tuna tartar with homemade guacamole, which turned out to be a delicious recipe that would be easy to imitate at home (participants got copies of the recipes, which the chefs were happy to autograph). Preparing food together is a bonding experience, and the subsequent lunch, accompanied by generous wine pours, turned out to be a raucous experience. No one walked away from the table feeling ripped off. If you’re going to splurge for one special Top Chef experience, this is the one.
Foodie culture. Because the ship holds a Top Chef activity nearly every day, you’ll probably end up seeing the same fellow passengers again and again. Our group appreciated the chance to meet like-minded foodies — hey, there aren’t that many people out there who want to talk restaurants for hours — and Celebrity had quite a number of options to accommodate us. While the line doesn’t track exactly how many people booked solely because of Top Chef, we met several passengers who had done so.
Top Chef menu. On a nonformal night, one side of the main dining room menu has been dedicated to Top Chef-inspired dishes. Ash worked the room during the meal, advising diners on the best way to eat his chilled potato leek soup — mix the greens (it should be noted that Spike was nowhere to be seen). The Top Chef dishes were a notch above the regular Cosmopolitan menu, in terms of flavor profile. We heard murmurs of appreciation from tables around us, and when Ash walked around, people burst into applause.
Hit & Miss
Private Dinners. Besides the cooking classes, passengers could purchase an intimate two-hour dinner with each cheftestant in Normandie. Ours, with Spike, seemed a bit disconnected. We had thought the chefs themselves would be preparing the meal. Instead, Spike strolled up to the 12-person table in a T-shirt, glanced at the menu and wondered aloud why those dishes were chosen. (They were recipes that he had made on the show, executed by Summit’s dining team.) While the food itself was delicious — who knew hamachi works so well with jalapenos — conversation at the table took a long time to warm up. While Spike did his best to be witty, the experience was not worth the steep $195/person price tag. This concept needs tweaking.
Scheduling. Perhaps it was because our cruise was the first in the program, but signing up for the activities and getting information about the Top Chef activities ahead of time was difficult, and it might have dissuaded some passengers from participating. It took weeks for the activities to open up for booking. And then, when we did book, the cooking classes and demonstrations were scheduled for odd times, such as 7 a.m. on a port day. Small print assured us that we’d find out the proper times onboard. But when you’re trying to maximize and plan your vacation, it’s hard to shell out money for an expensive event without a guaranteed time. Our Cruise Critic roll call was full of questions about how exactly the Top Chef events would work. With the maiden voyage nearly completed, we believe this is a kink Celebrity could easily work out.
Ready to drool? Eat your way through a Top Chef cruise.
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