Cruise Line Cuisine: Is it Really Gourmet? (part 2)

| September 25, 2009

One of the biggest surprises many first time cruisers face is the outstanding quality of cruise ship cuisine. How truly accomplished are the celebrity chefs the cruise lines brag about?

Rating the Celebrity Chefs How truly accomplished are the celebrity chefs the cruise lines brag about? One way to find out is to examine their resumes, restaurants, books and awards.

There are plenty of culinary awards including James Beard, Food & Wine Magazine, AAA and Zagats. There are also culinary organizations that demand certain quality standards, like Cordon Bleu and Relais and Chateaux. But without a doubt the most coveted award by the chefs themselves are Michelin Stars.

Michelin awards from one to three stars, with most restaurants not getting any. Getting a single star is a reason for celebration. I live in a major city where there is not a single Michelin star in town, But to be fair, Michelin only started giving stars to U.S. restaurants two years ago.

In the U.S., the James Beard Foundation awards are among the most prestigious. Called "the father of American cooking," James Beard was one of the first celebrity chefs in the U.S. He wrote the first cookbook on outdoor cooking in 1942 and appeared on NBC in 1946. Like many great chefs, Beard's talents exploded when he moved to New York City where he established his first cooking school in 1955. He later wrote "Beard on Bread" and "Beard on Pasta." (For the record, Beard only had a mustache). Food and Wine Magazine and Bon Appétit also give out awards on a regular basis.

These awards are important talent indicators, but in truth all of the chefs in this article have been singled out by James Beard and the others so Michelin is the one we also consider the most. Here is another extremely simple way to evaluate a chef; just ask, "Is he French?"

It sounds cliché, but the French created the culinary arts and even invented restaurants. In a French family, mother (mère) is the "chef d' cuisine" supervising shopping for fresh produce and the preparation of mise en place - ingredients made ready for cooking. To be French trained is one thing, but growing up in France is better, growing up on a food-producing farm is better still, and best is all the above plus learning to cook at a young age.

Janice Wald Henderson, who can describe the indigenous ingredients and unique culinary style of each French province, says, "The French have great palates because their provincial lifestyle is immersed in fresh ingredients. They buy their produce daily at the farmer's market and would never miss a visit to the boulangerie for freshly baked bread on the way home."

Does This Make Cruise Ship Food Gourmet? Chef Matt Sigel dominated the palate contest when he was on the Hell's Kitchen TV show, so we asked what he thinks of cruise line food. Matt has only been on one cruise - on Carnival - but this is what he said: "When I tasted the food on Carnival I was blown away. I heard cruise food was good, but I never expected it to be that good."

Matt was referring to the most mainstream cruise line, Carnival, while Janice has mostly sailed on luxury cruise lines. Still, Matt was right on target. Carnival's consulting chef is a culinary icon, Georges Blanc. Blanc is to cuisine as Leonard Bernstein is to conducting.

This is what Matt had to say: "Blanc is a god among French chefs. Some of the best chefs ever came out of his kitchens." Carnival described the active involvement of Georges Blanc as recently as June 2008 when he designed many signature dishes for both in the main dining room and the Supper Club. He also hosted several Carnival chefs at his world famous Vonnas Spa in France for training in his own kitchens.

Another "cruise line celebrity chef" trained under Georges Blanc, Daniel Boulud consulted for Cunard Lines when the Queen Mary 2 was coming out. Boulud started working for Blanc when he was just 18 years old. Boulud is considered one of the world's best chefs today, and if you ever watch television cooking shows you have seen him many times.

But Carnival's chef name dropping is modest compared with other lines. The most famous celebrity chef affiliation ever was between Michel Roux and Celebrity Cruises, which lasted 15 years and ended in 2006.

Roux, a Michelin star chef, designed all of Celebrity's menus. His name was so closely affiliated with the line they eventually put Michel Roux gift shops aboard their ships. You could buy his cookbooks, his branded kitchen utensils and even a cast iron Michel Roux stove for about $12,000 dollars (including delivery) onboard.

How good was Michel Roux? "He's a true culinary genius" says Janice Wald Henderson.

Celebrity never explained why its affiliation with Roux ended. He was eventually replaced with a younger chef, Jacques Van Staden. "Jacques is a South African who learned to cook in his Italian mother's kitchen," said Matt. "He is a rising star."

Continue Article >> Cruise Line Cuisine (Part 3)

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Chef Matt Sigel's Cruise with CruiseMates Join us on the brand new Norwegian Epic for a unique culinary CruiseMates cruise Epic 10-30-10. Our guest chef is Matt Sigel, a contestant on season four of Hell's Kitchen on the Fox Network. Great recipes, cooking tips, insight into the life of a chef, discussion of cruise line cuisine and the comradery of your great CruiseMates readers.   Go>

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