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Cruise lines recruit onboard celebrity chefs for fine dining

A grilled veal chop at the Murano restaurant

A grilled veal chop at the Murano restaurant aboard Celebrity Cruises. Credit: Celebrity Cruises

As executive chef onboard the Crown Princess, Andrea Baiardo is responsible for serving 12,000 meals to more than 3,000 passengers every day.

But on this night, he’s pretty much worrying about just 10 of them.

Baiardo, along with the ship’s maitre d’, Michael Boonzaaier, is presiding over the immensely popular Chef’s Table, a backstage look at the floating hotel’s food operation, followed by an impressive dinner display of the best his kitchen can turn out.

This party is clearly for serious foodies, a group that the cruise industry is catering to intensively these days, with everything from elaborate themed dinners — a truffle extravaganza on a recent Celebrity voyage cost $250 a head — to collaborations with major chefs such as Nobu Matsuhisa on Crystal, Jacques Pepin on Oceania and the recent addition of Curtis Stone on Princess. Leaving shore on a cruise ship no longer means leaving culinary pleasures behind.

Hot ticket

Chef’s Table, which generally happens twice on a seven-day cruise, more often on longer cruises, is not heavily promoted, but word-of-mouth has made it a hot ticket. Google it and you’ll get plenty of advice on the need to call for reservations the minute you board if you want one of the 10 spots available at each dinner.

On a morning before the event, the people who’ve managed to snag one of those spots ($150 a head when we went early last year) gather in one of the empty restaurants for a planning session. What with all the viruses running around ships these days, Princess doesn’t mess around with letting people into the working kitchen. (Veteran cruisers are familiar with tours of ships’ kitchens, but those generally happen off-hours when no food is actually being prepared.)

At this pre-meeting, guests get a list of dos and don’ts (freshly laundered clothes, please; no open-toed shoes; don’t come if you’re feeling unwell) and sign a waiver attesting to their good health. Boonzaaier gives a brief rundown of what to expect and warns everyone to eat lightly on the day of the Chef’s Table.

White lab coats

On the big night, passengers are directed to a spot outside the dining room to put on white lab coats. Once inside, the first stop is the hand-washing stations (no shirking, they’re watching your every move). Finally it’s out into the kitchen, which seems strangely serene and organized. Where’s all that banging and swearing you see on “Top Chef” and “Hell’s Kitchen”?

OK, so Baiardo admits that this may not be the busiest time of the evening. At the moment, it’s all running like a well-oiled machine — pasta being tossed in one area, chicken breasts plated in another, waiters hefting impossibly huge trays. With guests in the kitchen, everyone is all smiles.

In a back corner, counters have been draped in white cloths and adorned with bouquets of carved fruits and vegetables (the kind of things you used to see at those grand buffets that have pretty much disappeared from cruise ships because, said Boonzaaier, “people weren’t eating, they were just taking pictures”).

Finally, time for Chef Baiardo to show his stuff. As Champagne is poured, we are presented with the first of four rather spectacular hors d’oeuvres, a lobster and blue crab margarita with avocado and mango. That’s quickly followed by tuna and beef tartar, smoked duck bonbon with foie gras and truffle mousse, and roasted new potatoes with sour cream and caviar.

Multicourse feast

Some of us were thinking we could be done at that point, but no, we were eventually led back to the dining room, where we lost the lab coats and took our places around a beautiful table set with enough wineglasses to make it clear we were in for quite the feast.

Boonzaaier uncorked the first of many bottles as several chefs worked on the first course, risotto with lobster and radicchio, a dish Baiardo described as one that made him think of what his mama served in his native Genoa, Italy. (He now lives in Puerto Vallarta and teaches cooking skills to impoverished children.)

After the lemon sorbet intermezzo, which the chef doused with a serious shot of Grey Goose (good thing no one was driving), some of us could barely touch the meal’s centerpiece: double surf and turf, meaning lobster tail, diver scallops, filet mignon and lamb chops. That did not, however, stop us from sampling (stress the word “sample”) the array of three desserts: baked Camembert with port wine reduction and walnut bread, Belgian chocolate cake with whiskey-soaked raspberries, and an impressive array of biscotti and cookies shop (best macaroons ever).

Can you say food coma?

At the end of the meal, Baiardo was back, this time with long stemmed roses for the women and a signed copy of the cruise line’s cookbook, “Courses.” Guests lingered, sharing their stories of Chef’s Tables past before heading up to their staterooms.

Because, really, breakfast was only a few hours away.

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