We barely got back from our adventure in Puerto Vallerta in time to get ready for the next one: The Chef’s Table. If you’re going to cruise on Carnival and you consider yourself a foodie (like we do) then you must splurge and sign up for this singular dining experience. It is absolutely worth it.
The Chef’s Table experience starts in the lobby with a glass of champagne and then proceeds with a tour of the main galley. We followed the sous chef through the Black Pearl dining room at the height of the dinner hour. It was fun. People whispered and stared at our small group of elegantly-dressed guests trailing behind the sous chef like ducklings after their mother.
I heard a guest ask her server, “Who are they?”
“Oh, they’re dining at the Chef’s Table,” he responded with a fair amount of reverence in his voice.
“It’s our special dining experience, featuring eight courses…” I didn’t catch the rest of the explanation as by then we had been whisked away through that large doors leading into the galley.
We made our way through the busy crowded kitchen and off to a small alcove with a large steel table. Thick bars of baking chocolate, eggs, butter and a bowl of all-purpose flour (the bane of my existence) waited for us. I have to give the staff credit – there were two people with mobility issues in our group and the chefs were able to accommodate both a walker and a wheelchair in the small space.
A pastry chef appeared, wearing a red scarf around his neck, and while the sous chef explained the steps, he demonstrated how to make the most popular dessert on the menu – the chocolate melting cake.
Our sous chef also told us the meaning for the colored scarves – they denoted position, with white being the ranking for the sous chef.
“So can anyone guess what no scarf means?” He quizzed us in a serious tone.
We all shook our heads. Someone guessed, “Executive Chef?”
He laughed. “No my friends, it just means someone was lazy when they dressed that morning!”
After the cooking demonstration, the servers came around with our first amuse bouche. My Darling always takes care of letting everyone know of my allergies, so I wasn’t worried when the server handed me what appeared to be a raw egg yolk on a cracker.
There were a few odd expressions as people contemplated how to eat this – or whether they should. Raw egg yolks are not usually considered safe to eat by your typical germaphobic American and I could see some internal conflicts happening. My Darling looked at everyone, shrugged and popped his into his mouth.
“Oh that’s good!” He exclaimed. Turning to me, he said, “Put the whole thing in your mouth and eat it in one bite.”
I followed his direction and was rewarded with an explosion of sweet mango purée in my mouth when I bit through the thin membrane.
“Mango spheres,” the sous chef explained as the rest of our party followed suit. He went on to describe the complicated process that goes into making them. (My Darling later admitted that making them really isn’t that hard and even replicated the recipe when we got home just to show me how easy it is).
Our plates were collected and we were next presented with Salmon Tartare Cornets. The chefs went to the trouble of creating a gluten-free version of the cone housing the salmon tartare for me. It was delicious and I’m going to assume here that everyone else’s was just as tasty.
Next up was Beef Carpaccio on Air Pillow with Chocolate Bacon and Apple Ribbons. This one was the only one that was a little disappointing for me as a gluten-intolerant person.There was no way to replicate the pastry pillow so I had to settle for a small round of gluten-free bread. But the other flavors were yummy.
The last item was Double-Cooked Lamb on a Tapioca Cracker. It was loaded with wonderful Indian spices and a nice contrast to the sweetness of the previous little bite.
At this point we were guided through the rest of the galley, briefly stopping at various sections for a explanation of how the galley flows. I wasn’t as impressed as some of the other guests at this point, probably because I spent some time during my college years working in restaurants. The galley reminded me of any kitchen in a large busy restaurant, with pictures to show how entrees should be plated, etc. It was just on a larger and busier scale.
“From here, the servers take trays loaded with up to twelve plates upstairs to the dining room,” the sous chef told us. “I don’t know how they do it – I couldn’t.” He chuckled and shook his head. “I guess that’s why I’m a chef and not a server.”
We followed him back out through the dining room and into a private room that had been decked out for the occasion. On one end of the room was an area for plating, while on the other was a long table with placeholders for each of us. A menu, rolled up and wrapped in a ribbon sat in front of each place.
Now we had to make a choice as our server came around to each of us. “White or red?”
It was pretty evenly dispersed between red and white drinkers, until they got to my Darling. “Both,” he answered. The others looked at him as if he was some kind of crazy alcoholic. “Well, I’m sure some things will pair better with white and some with red, right?”
One of the ladies across from him nodded. “You know, he’s right. I’ll have the same!”
“Me too,” came a voice from the far end of the table.
Our server looked at me and held up both bottles. I nodded and she poured a healthy amount into each glass. By the time she was done most of the others had two glasses of wine in front of them and I felt like my Darling had started a trend. Unfortunately, I was so dazzled by the overall ambience that I failed to get a good look at the wines and can’t report back what they were.
The first course, Beet Blanket with Spiced Grape Tea, featured a terrine of three colorful vegetables (spinach/asparagus, cauliflower and carrot) wrapped in a “blanket” made from beets.
“None for me!” called a voice from midway down the table. “I don’t like beets. I’ll skip it.”
Surprised, we all looked down at the young woman waving away the plate.
“I did the Chef’s Table last week on the Inspiration,” she explained, sounding bored. “It’s the same menu… So I’ll pass on this round.” She glared at the astonished server, who was trying to comprehend how she could be refusing the course. “Take it away. I’m not eating it.”
My Darling rolled his eyes and mouthed “Wow.” I knew what he was thinking – why spend the money if you’re not planning to at least sample every course?
But hey, maybe she was pacing herself – there were, after all, eight courses ending with Wagyu beef, which my Darling was particularly looking forward to.
We turned our attention back to our plates. We were given a moment to appreciate the detail of the presentation, and then a server came by and poured the spiced grape tea over it. The tea enhanced the sweetness of the beets and carrots while the fried green onion and the streusel added just enough texture to counter the soft mousse-like consistency of the terrine. It paired quite nicely with the crisp white wine chosen for the meal. I paused, contemplating whether I should pace myself as well and leave the last bite on my plate, but in the end I just couldn’t.
As soon as we were finished, our plates were whisked away and the next course appeared. It was a crab stack with corn custard and garnished with a polenta cracker.
The elderly woman across from me frowned. “What’s that on top?”
Her daughter consulted the menu. “Hmmm. It says passion caviar. I wonder what that is?”
My Darling leaned over. “It’s fruit “caviar.” The chef makes it by mixing fruit juice with Agar Agar and then dropping droplets into oil to create tiny balls.”
The octogenarian eyed them suspiciously. “Looks like fish eggs. I don’t like fishy things.”
Her daughter gingerly picked one up with her fork and tasted it. “He’s right, Mom. They’re not fish eggs; they’re sweet like fruit. Not fishy at all.”
I dug in. The passion caviar lent a nice tropical fruit accent to the crab stack, but then, I’ve always loved pairing fruit and seafood so it was a familiar and welcome flavor combination to me. The polenta garnish, while colorful, also rounded off the dish with a nice crunchy texture.
The old woman picked at the crab and ate her cracker, but refused to taste the caviar or eat anything that touched it. “She’s got a small appetite,” her daughter apologized as the server cleared her mostly untouched plate.
By now I was finding the pair across from me pretty entertaining, so I watched them as the next course arrived. The presentation was beautiful – slices of duck on top of duck confit on top of creamy quinoa and garnished with parmesan sticks and a small pile of white powder. But the elderly woman eyed her food skeptically and I was interested to see what she would say.
At this point the sous chef appeared at my Darling’s side, drawing my attention away from the mother and daughter. “So here’s a question for our resident chef,” he grinned rather mischievously. “What’s the powder?”
Everyone’s eyes were on Mark as he took a taste of the white powder. “It’s… Uh… Hmmmm…” He paused and took another taste. “I have no clue,” he finally admitted. “It’s familiar, but I can’t place it.”
“It’s dehydrated olive oil,” our sous chef triumphantly announced, clearly happy to have stumped Mark for once. He then went on to explain the process of how they make it.
Meanwhile, the old woman across from me prodded at the duck with her fork. “What’s this?”
Her daughter smiled, “I’m not going to tell you. Just take a bite.”
She scowled and then took a tentative bite. Her face lit up. “This is really good. A little rich for my taste, but good.” She looked at her daughter. “Now are you going tell me what it is?”
“Duck? Are you sure?”
Her daughter sighed. “That’s what it says on the menu, Mom. ‘It’s called Duck Textures’.”
“But I don’t like duck!”
“You liked this didn’t you?”
“See, it’s good to try new things once in a while.”
The old woman grumbled and stayed uncharacteristically silent until the next course. I noticed, however, that she cleaned her plate.
Our servers now placed a bowl in front of each of us that was empty except for a thin line of white cream garnished with brioche chips (mine were gluten-free versions). After everyone had a bowl, the servers returned with two small pitchers and poured equal parts of red and yellow tomato soup into the two sides of the bowl, so that they were separated by the white cream. This was the Two Tomato/Three Basil Bisque. We were all encouraged to eat it any way we preferred – I mixed the cream and soups together to make a creamy bisque. Others opted to try and eat the soups separately. Either way, the presentation and flavor was fantastic.
The servers kept the wine flowing and pretty soon the conversation was flowing as well as we all began comparing notes on what we liked best so far. Food is a great icebreaker and soon we were all chatting like old friends.
At this point the executive chef came to introduce himself and told us some interesting facts about the ship and how much food comes through the kitchen (over 300,000 pounds for our particular cruise) and how many guests they serve per dining hour (between two to three thousand). He explained what happens to uneaten food (it’s ground up and fed to the fish) and how the galleys (there are four of them) are able to handle such a large amount of guests (as well as crew) during the dining room hours.
After he excused himself, a magician came to the table to perform card tricks. As I was seated at the end, he picked on me for a few of his tricks. The most impressive was the one where I wrote my name on a card and put it back in the deck, only to have it turn up moments later, folded, in the guy’s wallet which had been in his back pocket the whole time.
Sea bass has apparently been a theme for me during this trip, and I was not at all disappointed to see my favorite fish featured in the next course. This time it was baked with a chorizo crust which added a nice salty component to this buttery white fish. It was garnished with popcorn fritters and a tiny lemon macaron. By now I was beginning to feel satiated, so I didn’t mind that the chefs weren’t able to create gluten-free fritters for me. The next course was something special and I wanted to make sure I saved a little room.
My Darling has long drooled over Wagyu beef, but with good cuts starting at more than $100 a pound, it’s one of those luxuries he hasn’t wanted to indulge himself with. He’s kind of funny that way. So when he saw that the last course was Wagyu Beef, he was ecstatic.
“I’m not eating that,” came the familiar voice from down the table. “Take it away.” Once again the picky diner turned her nose up at a dish.
Mark’s eyes widened with shock as he watched the stupefied server retreat to dispose of the guest’s untouched plate. “She just turned away the Wagyu.”
“Well there is a lot of food,” I tried to rationalize. “Perhaps she’s just full.”
“But… But… It’s Wagyu Beef,” he moaned. He seemed to have trouble with the concept of wasting even a tiny bit of this dish featuring his personal holy grail of meat – and now here was a whole plateful of it going to waste. She did miss out too – it was wonderful. The beef almost melted in your mouth – it was so rich and flavorful. I was pretty full at this point but I wasn’t going to leave a single bite on my plate.
The picky diner later proved me wrong when the dessert course arrived. Not only did she not turn it away, but she scarfed down every last bite as if she was starving. The presentation was beautiful, but personally, I found the assortment of desserts a little disappointing in flavor and originality compared to the rest of the feast. I had to wonder at her choice; if I had to turn away one course so I could eat the other, I definitely would have skipped dessert in favor of the Wagyu!
Our meal over, we were guided out through a different door and found ourselves back in the lobby where we started. We said our goodbyes, knowing that we were all strangers once more now that the bond of a shared meal was broken. But overall it was a lovely evening, made even more special by the interesting and entertaining characters who shared it with us.