I was in a California cooking rut. Every night I went into my kitchen, sloshed extra virgin Napa Valley olive oil into a skillet and did something strenuously unfussy with fresh, local produce. I roasted chickens Zuni Cafe–style, pureed organic basil for a thousand pestos, and sliced garlic for Alice Waters's tomato gratin so many times I'd memorized the recipe. I tried to live by the Waters credo that "there is nothing more satisfying at the end of a meal than a perfect piece of fruit."
Looking back on it, no wonder I was depressed. Like a good California home cook, I was letting my ingredients speak. And I couldn't get a word in edgewise.
I hardly expected a cruise of the Baltic Sea with stops in cabbage capitals like Hamburg and St. Petersburg to shake my culinary foundations. And I didn't foresee that a fancy onboard Cordon Bleu cooking class would send me back to the kitchen with more enthusiasm than I've felt since I was 10, mixing my first pan of Rice Krispie treats. But that is exactly what happened.
As other cruisers on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager are playing paddle tennis or getting exfoliated with sunflower seeds in the spa, I'm sitting in one of the ship's plush dining rooms with 14 other students watching Yann Barraud, a hyperkinetic 35-year-old Frenchman, prepare salmon rillettes. "I was raised on butter, and see, I am still thin," says Yann, who is also immodest, funny, and hyperbolic. He is vigorously stirring a hunk of soft butter into a bowl of flaked fish. Formerly a chef at the Michelin 3-star Le Gavroche in London, Yann is demonstrating a (comparatively) healthy version of the great French dish rillettes, which, composed the traditional way, consists of fatty pork cooked in fat until it collapses into an incredibly decadent paste.
Over the three days of this course—scheduled for our afternoons at sea—we are going to prepare a formal, extravagantly garnished French dinner. It's the kind of glitzy restaurant-style production I've never attempted on my own. Today we're tackling the appetizer. In our next class we'll take on the entree, and on the third afternoon, dessert. "The theory is that by the time you've finished your cruise you've got some intensive Cordon Bleu training and a menu you can go home and make yourself," says Andrew Poulton, marketing director for Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
It turns out that enrichment seminars like the one I've signed up for are the biggest trend in the cruise industry right now. And I can see why. This leisurely 10-day sail from Stockholm to Rouen includes 3½ days at sea—time that, once I've checked my email 17 times in the computer room, run on a treadmill, taken a steam bath, and played a few games of Scrabble, stretches out interminably. As Jessica Agate, editor of the online newsletter CruiseReports, puts it, "Travelers are looking for something more stimulating than sitting on deck and soaking in the sun."
Certainly that has been taken into account on the Voyager, where, in addition to the Cordon Bleu seminar, this trip includes lectures by former CIA director Stansfield Turner, celebrity chef Ken Hom, and an Antiques Roadshow expert who will discuss Scandinavian design.
Now Yann is chopping a skinned tomato into symmetrical, translucent dice. "I use quite a bit of salt in my cooking," he says. "Some chefs think with great produce you don't need salt. I don't quite agree with that." He adds a dollop of yogurt to the salmon, gives it an emphatic stir, and tastes. "It is very important to taste as you cook. And a chef is very selfish; he always cooks for himself." Yann sharpens the dish with lemon juice and paprika, then arranges some lettuce into a nest, and flips the salmon gently back and forth between two spoons to form three flawless egg-shaped quenelles. He lays them on the lettuce, tops them with dabs of caviar, and adds some garlicky croutons to the composition, saying, "That will bring a little crunch to the plate." He holds up the beautiful, delicate dish: "Et voila!"
Now it is our turn. "Everyone has their own crazy ideas," Yann says as he leads us through massive steel doors into the galley kitchen. "I respect that. I'm not going to ask you do these exactly how I did them."
On a cruise you get used to being pampered, become accustomed to deferential butlers, flattering lighting, and hushed tones. The loud, infernally hot, fluorescent-lit kitchen comes as a shock. There's a vast, heat-spewing black stove, atop it a gargantuan pot of bubbling brown stock filled with bones and vegetable scraps—the homely source of the elegant sauces we've been eating every night. To be heard, Yann shouts; he paces around, offering suggestions as we burn our croutons, melt our rubber spatulas, and inadvertently mash rillettes into baby food. "You want it to have a little bite," he says, showing me how to stir more gingerly.
I find that while it is easy to make the rillettes taste great, getting them to look pretty—or even presentable—requires fine motor skills I haven't used since my days of coloring inside the lines. An hour later, we bring our plates back out to the dining room for a critique. Here's mine: If someone served me the appetizer I have just prepared, I would send it back. I am pretty sure Yann agrees.
Classic French cuisine—full of butter, pricey ingredients, and just-so garnitures—has come and gone in the United States. The cooking of Northern Europe has yet to arrive. The two have nothing in common except that they are both a big change from the rustic California cooking I am used to. For 10 days, no fresh tomato salad, artisanal pasta, or broiled salmon crosses my lips. Instead, in Estonia I eat traditional eel soup, a thin, salty broth containing a chunk of meaty eel and one enormous fluffy egg dumpling. To a Californian, spectacularly odd and absolutely delicious. In St. Petersburg a chef has blanketed a piece of fish in a mayonnaise-thick white sauce—a dish that would be considered a heavy abomination back home. In fact, it's rich and satisfying. Why do I always grill my fish? When did I become such a puritan?
Then there is the cake in Hamburg. Germans haven't yet embraced minimalist baking, and the highlight of the whole trip may be a towering slab of intricate cake, layer upon layer of liquor-soaked pastry, jam, marzipan, custard, and cream. It's immeasurably more interesting and gratifying than the restrained flourless chocolate cakes currently in vogue in U.S. restaurants.
In the second class, Yann shows us how to stuff chicken breasts with garlic and spinach. The fowl will be accompanied by a complicated duo of side dishes: an eggplant mille-feuille filled with eggplant caviar, and a crispy potato-zucchini galette. "The skin of the eggplant, would you eat it?" Yann asks as he scrapes roasted flesh from the eggplant’s purple husk. "Yes? I would too. I would julienne it and deep-fry it. In cuisine, we recycle everything."
He throws a hunk of butter in a pan, lets it sizzle, then adds blanched garlic cloves, pushing them around with his fingers. He cuts a pocket in a chicken breast and slips in the sauteed garlic along with some baby spinach, sealing the incision with a strip of chicken skin. In two minutes he has prepared a clever, tidy, self-basting package. It is such an obvious, cool thing to do with a piece of chicken—why didn't I ever try it before?
"When you learn to cook you don't use any gadgets—you do everything by hand," Yann says as he cuts potatoes into a fine julienne. "After 10 years of experience you use gadgets." The chicken is browning in butter, and he keeps checking it with his fingers; when it feels springy but not soft, it's done. He points at the fat where the chicken has cooked: "You know what I call that? Gold." He throws in tarragon and shallots, cooks them a moment, then deglazes the pan with cognac. He adds creme fraiche, tastes, and announces: "I don't know who made that sauce, but it is very, very good."
Back in the humid kitchen, the rest of the afternoon is an aerobic frenzy of slicing, sauteing, roasting, and blanching. "I hope you have your running shoes on," Yann jokes. But no matter how fast I run, I can't quite get the job done right. My chicken and the eggplant look like something you'd get at the French Laundry. The sauce, however, is a watery disaster and the galette falls to pieces. I know exactly what I did wrong, and it will take a little practice to correct.
Nonetheless, it all tastes fabulous.
Two days later we're making our pre-graduation souffles. I shave a brick of white chocolate into a pot of simmering milk and stir until I have an ivory liquid I want to pour into a mug and drink.
Instead, I add eggs and flour and make creme anglaise. "When it starts thickening that's when you have to stir like a crazy person." Yann says, watching me gently agitate the creme. He shakes his head and demonstrates, banging the whisk violently against the side of the pan. "As soon as your face becomes red and your wrist hurts, it is ready."
Later when I present Yann with my strange-looking souffle batter and ask what he thinks, he responds, "That is very lumpy! I wish you had told me before it got to this state!"
I'm crestfallen. Yet when my souffle comes out of the oven, it is puffed and golden, like a toasted marshmallow. I place this marvelous thing on a doily and, after taking a picture, eat every bite. There are many more satisfying ways to end a meal than a perfect piece of fruit. Like a German cake that has been soaked in liquor, filled with custard, wrapped in marzipan, and heaped with schlag. And a white chocolate souffle. I learned a few nifty tricks in this cooking class, but most of all, I have relearned ambition.
Three weeks after the cruise, I am in my kitchen rolling out an acre of dough for coulibiac—a magnificent French-Russian hybrid dish in which rice, sturgeon, mushrooms, and salmon are swaddled in blini, wrapped in a pastry crust, drenched in butter, and baked. Fussy, yes. Flashy, absolutely. Also delicious, glamorous, exciting, and new. It's a big world, and I'm happy to be cooking again.
This article was first published in September 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.