Behind the Scenes: Holland America's Culinary Arts Center

February 8, 2007

Like many other lines, Holland America is hard at work carving out specialized niches, and one of its most prominent -- and frankly quite enjoyable -- has been the creation of its Culinary Arts Center.

The Culinary Arts Center, now onboard all ships in the fleet, is like having the Food Network sail with you -- whether you're in the audience or participating! It's a full kitchen facility, with plenty of room for team cooking efforts.

The program that accompanies the facility certainly offers the expected -- demonstrations and workshops by onboard chefs. But Holland America's expanded upon that and we got to sample a taste yesterday on Noordam, while it was docked in New York City.

The first wow for this Holland America first-timer was the kitchen itself. It looks like a television studio set (and in fact, Food Network's Dave Lieberman was onboard Ryndam just last month as a guest chef); the on-stage kitchen area on each ship is outfitted with a Wolf range, Kitchen Aid appliances and a Sub Zero refrigeration system -- no wonder they cost the line about one million a pop! There are plasma monitors to the left and right for zoomed-in action shots of, for example, the cutting board and frying pan. But of course the biggest advantage of attending a live demo onboard was being able to smell the food -- Rachael Ray or Emeril can't deliver that through my living room TV!

The second wow? Holland America invited some Manhattan notables in the worlds of food and drink to tempt us. Julie Reiner, mixologist and owner of the city's Flatiron Lounge, stirred up some Juniper Breezes (a refreshing grapefruit-based cocktail with Plymouth gin) for the audience. Raymond Southern, one of Holland America's three corporate executive chefs, prepared an Asian-spiced tuna ceviche and tiny tower of smoked scallops -- which we then ate as an "amuse," or appetizer, at a special "tasting" lunch in Pinnacle Grill, Noordam's alternative dining venue. The fiery East-meets-West ceviche was particularly innovative.

Curious to know more about how the chefs get onboard, how they plan their meals ... and how you can get involved? Read on:

Over lunch, future guest chef Sharon Lebewohl, who earned her stripes at New York's legendary Second Avenue Deli, told us that visitors pretty much get to choose whatever they want to prepare onboard. In her case, with a specialty in Jewish cuisine, she figures she'll focus on contemporary and innovative interpretations. Other guests who are lined up for gigs include Holly Turner of Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla, Washington; Pichet Ong, pastry chef at P*ONG in New York; and Paulette Mitchell, a culinary instructor and cookbook author.

Will dishes show up at dinner, too? Maybe -- it depends on the recipe. According to corporate chef Southern, some demo dishes (mainly appetizers and desserts) do show up on Pinnacle Grill or main dining room menus during that voyage.

Demonstrations are offered on sea days -- generally twice per cruise (though on longer voyages from New York, three or four might be scheduled). After the demonstration, which lasts about 45 minutes to an hour, everyone in attendance gets to sample a few of the dishes that were prepared on stage. Hands-on classes cost $29, and each can accommodate 12 people. Definitely heed this advice: Sign up as soon as you can because they "sell out." Classes can be as simple as spending 45 minutes in an apron chopping, slicing and sauteeing or more complex; some guest chefs take participants to markets on shore for tours and to pick out local ingredients.

Holland America's paired up with Food & Wine magazine; those folks design recipe cards and wine-tasting notes for guests to take home (and throw in a free issue as well). Experts at Food & Wine also helped Holland America design the test kitchens, and still consult on guest chefs.

In addition to the many Holland America chefs who will share recipes and tips with cruisers in 2007, over 50 "guest stars" -- chefs, winemakers, mixologists -- have signed on to offer demos. Click here for the full schedule.

Interesting Tidbit: Holland America's innovations haven't gone unnoticed outside of the cruise industry, either. Shea Homes, the country's largest private home builder, has already installed test kitchens like the Culinary Arts Center on several properties -- and is considering using the line's Explorations Cafe concept as a model for cyber libraries in upcoming active adult communities.

--by Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor

Trendwatch: What's Cooking in Onboard Cuisine?