A river cruise on a classic paddleboat and an all-American culinary tasting go together like … well, biscuits and gravy. At least that was the hope when American Queen Voyages, which sails steamboats on the Mississippi River, as well as others, teamed up with the PBS powerhouse America’s Test Kitchen.
Who would know better than Regina Charboneau – proclaimed “Queen of Biscuits” by the likes of the New York Times and Andrew Zimmern? Charboneau is the Natchez-born interim food and beverage director for AQV, the line’s culinary ambassador– and a premiere Southern chef in her own right.
Charboneau was onboard the first partnership cruise with America's Test Kitchen (known as ATK) on American Queen – and incidentally, the first sold-out cruise of the year for the 436-passenger Mississippi River ship. She was joined by Bridget Lancaster, who is a familiar face to fans of the ATK show, cookbooks, magazines, websites and podcast, as well as Cook’s Illustrated, and Cook’s Country.
Read on to see what this sailing – and the others to come – will be like:
Charboneau has had a long and accomplished culinary career owning restaurants from San Francisco to Natchez and, penning several cookbooks,. She operates a cooking school as a seventh generation native in her hometown of Natchez (which we were able to visit on our cruise).
Charboneau was commissioned by the line in 2021 to create new recipes for all the ships and across all the rivers, with a focus on a sense of place. For example, “steamboaters” on board American Queen on the Lower Mississippi River sailing from New Orleans to Memphis will feast on Southern and regional specialties, such as red fish and oysters, while guests aboard American Empress for the Snake and Columbia rivers voyage will sample Pacific Northwest seafood dishes featuring fresh halibut and salmon.
ATK’s Lancaster is the co-host of America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country, executive editorial director for America’s Test Kitchen, and the head instructor for America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School. She began her early culinary career working in kitchens with a focus on pastry, and she worked at William’s Sonoma in Boston, where she met someone on the editorial staff at Cook’s Illustrated. Lancaster joined Cooks’ Illustrated in 1998 as a test cook and was part of the launch of Cook’s Country.
Over the years she’s taught millions of home cooks how to hone their cooking and baking skills through more than 20 years of video instruction and the perfected recipes in ATK’s publications, cookbooks, and their online website.
Many guests had booked this cruise because they’re fans of the ATK show and wanted the chance to attend ATK-themed culinary demonstrations and meet the show’s co-host. Some of them even brought several ATK cookbooks on board for Lancaster to sign.
The first culinary cruise with ATK looked a little different than what’s planned for the next two sailings in 2024. While Charboneau had traveled to Boston with AQV representatives to meet with the staff at ATK – and Lancaster has visited her in Natchez – this was the first time Lancaster had been on board one of the line’s vessels.
Lancaster also boarded the boat in Natchez, so she was not on for the entire sailing. Her filming for the shows in Boston didn’t wrap in time for her to embark in New Orleans. “It was a fact-finding mission having not been on at all, so I didn’t know what to expect regarding the equipment and the setup,” she said. “I think we’re getting more pointed as we work together, solidifying more and more.”
Going forward, the plan is to work around the show’s filming schedule so Lancaster or other ATK special guests can be on board for the full week to host culinary demonstrations, cooking classes, and other food-focused events.
Another one of the features of the partnership is to bring “6 Recipes, 6 Rivers” to life, where guests will enjoy dishes highlighting the culinary and cultural history and tapestry of the towns along the North American Rivers. On the Lower Mississippi the featured recipe is a Louisiana-style cornbread dressing with andouille sausage that will be paired with baked Cornish hens, quail, or pork chops. On the Ohio River, steamboaters will have a taste of all things related to bourbon with dishes such as ribeye steaks with a bacon-bourbon compote and mashed potatoes.
Guests of the culinary sailing received printed color copies of the six river and regionally inspired new ATK recipes. There were also recipe cards for a few of Charboneau’s favorite cocktails, including a Sazerac and her bourbon milk punch – and of course, a recipe for her famous Natchez biscuits. We also received an AQV apron with the biscuit recipe cleverly written upside down so you can lift it up to read the recipe while preparing her biscuits in your kitchen.
Charboneau had a “Meet Regina” Q & A session one day before Lancaster joined the voyage where guests could ask questions about the culinary ambassador’s background, the ATK partnership, and even ask for cooking tips. She also had two cooking demonstrations showing guests how to make light and airy profiteroles (a New Orleans favorite) and her famous biscuits.
Another highlight was receiving either a Cook’s Country cookbook or, “The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook: 2001 – 2024,” featuring recipes and cooking tips from 24 years of the most watched cooking show on public television.
Lancaster and Charboneau hosted a more than hourlong cooking demonstration preparing the Beef Burgundy Pot Pie with a Bacon-Thyme Biscuit Crust recipe. During the demo, Lancaster showed a slideshow from ATK explaining the thorough recipe testing process at the test kitchen in Boston and explained how they come up with the best products to recommend after their rigid review process.
Steamboaters were also invited to sign up to become one of America’s Test Kitchen’s recipe testers. After questions from the audience, both chefs personalized and signed the cookbooks. One of Charboneau’s books, “Mississippi Current,” was available for purchase in the gift shop.
Charboneau says there will always be at least one ATK recipe on the dinner menu every evening and possibly two. These dishes will allow guests to sample the flavors of the other regions, such as two of the dishes we enjoyed on board, Soy-Glazed Salmon with Shiitake Mushrooms and Bok Choy from the Snake and Columbia rivers and Fisherman’s Pie, made with Alaskan cod from the Alaska Inside Passage voyage.
While AQV does have other culinary and cocktail cruises and special sailings hosted by Charboneau throughout the year, known as Regina & Friends, future sailings with ATK will include guest appearances and cooking demonstrations by the television show’s personalities and hosts.
“We want to be a tool and resource for AQV and bring a culinary spotlight to the line,” Lancaster told me. “I’d love to work with Regina even more and do videos for AQV. We talked about this. Maybe create videos where we share great little places to go for great food off the ship, like tamales, and bring more regional food on board.” She adds, “I’d also like to do more hands-on workshops with fundamentals, like teaching people how to chop. It’s fun to meet the people who watch the show.”
“I’m so excited to work with Regina. She’s a great host and I’m glad we could work together on the recipes, like our one collaboration – the longest stew ever made and what Regina is known for.” Lancaster is referring to one of the new ATK dishes featured on the ships, Beef Burgundy Pot Pie with a Bacon-Thyme Biscuit Crust.
If you’re a culinary enthusiast or food and beverage geek (I’m guilty on all counts) and want to sail in North America, with a focus on the U.S. rivers and regional cuisine, then this cruise is for you.
You’ll find plenty of ATK groupies on board, many since the inception of Cook’s Illustrated.. You might also see spryer guests, such as the young couple who were on their honeymoon.
This voyage was clearly a test run as the first one in the branding partnership. While Charboneau hosted several culinary events and demos, Lancaster’s late arrival on board was a disappointment to some guests who expected a full week of ATK culinary demonstrations and events. Extremely low water levels on the Mississippi River also put a damper on the week since the boat could not stop in Vicksburg, which was the highlight of the trip for some guests. We also had to disembark two hours south of Memphis as the final destination and take a bus since the boat could not dock in Memphis.
While this voyage had a few hiccups with the scheduling for Lancaster and the change in the itinerary, look for much more to come. Charboneau and Lancaster have a great personal friendship and professional partnership and their energy together was fun to watch on stage – and over cocktails and dinner – and they both have big plans for next year, including bringing more ATK personalities on the ships. You can also expect to see more cooking sessions, mixology demonstrations (the sample of Charboneau’s version of a Sazarac and bourbon milk punch were very tasty), other special events, and lots of laughs.
There are at least two ATK cruises in the planning stages for next year, although the rivers and ships have not yet been decided but look for the voyages and details soon.
Lancaster added, “The partnership is a natural match with AQV and Cook’s Country, especially with the many holiday themed recipes. What I like is that it’s very hyper-American. We forget about the regionality within the U.S., especially around the rivers. If Julia comes with me on an Alaska cruise,” Lancaster says of her longtime friend and co-host, Julia Collin Davison, “our cooking demos will be so different than what we did on this voyage.”
Charboneau explained, “We’re learning as we go. Next year we’ll bring Bridget on for a full sailing when she’s not filming and has a break in her schedule. If we’re going to do a culinary cruise, then we’re going to do a culinary cruise.” She added, “We’re expanding next year and will bring more ATK personalities on board. There are many big fans of the show, as we saw with the sweepstakes.” AQV partnered with ATK before the cruise to give away the nine-day sailing on board American Queen, promoting the new collaboration – and the winners were on the sailing.