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In the end, it’s all about the food, or at least that’s what the cruise industry’s recent behavior would tell us. Although the lines have deployed impressive new hardware and ramped-up service levels in recent years, the flood of culinary upgrades has been hard to ignore — and increasingly difficult to track. Celebrity chefs, myriad alternative dining options and trendy menu items have come forth in a seemingly never-ending game of one-upmanship. Armed for battle in this high-seas gastronomic arms race, Holland America Line (HAL) has a powerful weapon in Master Chef Rudi Sodamin, who has upped the ante in the premium segment with his Culinary Council initiative. A recent cruise on the Statendam allowed me to gauge the evolutionary progress of this program and to assess overall culinary operations aboard.
The foundation for HAL’s recent culinary upgrades was laid in 2004, when the line executed a long-term consulting agreement with Rudi Sodamin — a multi-talented Austrian chef who made his name at age 23 as the youngest Chef de Cuisine ever on a large cruise ship (Norwegian Cruise Line’s Vistafjord). He then went on to serve as corporate chef at Cunard Line, held a similar position at Royal Caribbean and authored several cookbooks along the way.
According to Sodamin, his initial, overarching mission as HAL’s consulting Master Chef was to change the perception of the food on the line’s ships. It wasn’t that the food was bad, it just needed an update. With that goal, he set out to revamp and modernize menus in HAL’s culinary program by examining every aspect of the dining experience onboard the line’s ships. Sodamin put a culinary road map in place that emphasized education and pride in the ships’ galleys. Within 12 months, menus were upgraded and practices and procedures installed to ensure consistency in dining operations across the fleet. After working with restaurateur Sirio Maccioni to introduce a pop-up version of Le Cirque onboard HAL’s ships in 2010, Sodamin unleashed his energy onto an ambitious new endeavor: a culinary council of esteemed chefs.
In 2011, he introduced the concept with a coalition of six renowned chefs (himself included) in pursuit of one gustatory objective: to create and deploy innovative, gourmet menu items to all fleetwide dining venues. When I sailed on the Westerdam in June 2011, the Culinary Council dishes had just rolled out and the results were predictably uneven. An obvious gap between concept and execution manifested itself in some disappointing tastes and textures. That’s all water under the bridge now, as the current collection of dishes — which appears highlighted on dinner menus with credit to the originating chef — is finely honed.
While I sampled most on my recent voyage, the best in class were David Burke’s Pan-Seared Rainbow Trout, Charlie Trotter’s Lavender and Almond Milk Flan and Marcus Samuelsson’s Crispy Crab Roll. Other council dishes of note were Johnny Boer’s Barramundi With Coconut-Lemongrass Reduction and chocolatier Jacques Torres’ Poached Pear With Chocolate Fondue.
Topping them all, however, was Master Chef Rudi’s Grilled Turkey Breast With Figs and Honey Onion Compote. That dish, with its complex yet complementary flavors, was awe-inspiring. It’s important to note, however, that all of these recipes, whether developed by Sodamin or his council, come with a critical caveat: they must be faithfully executed by the respective onboard executive chef and his staff. That gap, between concept and execution, is a dangerous disconnect that plagues many lines’ culinary programs. To manage this risk, Sodamin regularly visits all ships in the fleet in order to train staff and ensure consistency. Photos of each dish’s required presentation are also posted in the galleys.
On the Statendam, Executive Chef Bitta Kuruvilla and his able team fulfill the Culinary Council’s vision with accuracy and picture-perfect presentation. An important aspect of onboard dining, HAL provisions its ships with top-quality cuts of beef, pork and lamb, thereby enhancing the range of dishes on the daily menus.
Culinary upgrades extend to the self-service casual dining in the Lido as well, as lunches there feature a vast array of sophisticated dishes such as soft-shell crab sandwiches, chili-rubbed tuna brochette and crispy pork belly. The breakfast lineup includes made-to-order waffles and an eggs Benedict station, where seven varieties of the dish are prepared to order — using nonstandard ingredients such as crabmeat and smoked salmon. Lido dinner options typically reflect a subset of dishes found on the main dining room menu, minus the enhanced presentation and some side dishes.
Interestingly, as the quality of the main dining room fare has improved on HAL’s ships, it now approaches — and at times exceeds — that of the Pinnacle Grill, the line’s principal alternative restaurant. Notwithstanding the excellent steak and lamb selections here, the key differentiators in the Pinnacle Grill (versus the dining room) remain intensely personal service and table spacing. All said, the $25 surcharge here is still a good value proposition.
In his tenure with HAL, Sodamin has done a masterful job of transforming the line’s ho-hum menus into modern, sophisticated restaurant fare. The quality and presentation of his cuisine is a model for other lines to aspire to. So what’s next for the always-in-motion chef in 2013 and beyond? He plans to add a female chef to the Culinary Council, but otherwise declines to reveal specifics.