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Dining at a chef’s table should always be a titillating treat of tantalizing tastes. Traditionally, a chef’s table is located in the kitchen – where the guests can watch, and “ooh” and “ahh” as the chef and his/her team work their culinary magic. That was not how it was at the table of Chef Ottavio Bellesi aboard Princess Cruises' Golden Princess – and here’s why.
From the Beginning
Soon after boarding the Golden Princess in San Francisco, we had a meeting with the ship’s maître d'hôtel, Neville Saldanha, to discuss our dining preferences.
After learning that we were writing about the cruise, and knowing that food is always a popular subject with prospective passengers, Mr. Saldanha suggested that we make reservations for one of the two chef’s table events planned for the sailing. We quickly agreed, and a few days later our invitation was in our stateroom mailbox.
A-Dining We Did Go
On our assigned night, we gathered just outside the galley entrance with the four other lucky couples that would share our table. There we donned freshly laundered white lab coats and were led into the sparkling kitchen.
Our first stop was the sink, where each guest was required to wash his/her hands before proceeding into the galley’s inner sanctum.
After the salubrious ceremony, the maître d', Neville, introduced us to our grand host, Ottavio Bellesi, Executive Chef of the Golden Princess. Together, they described how the evening would unfold.
First, a toast of Nicolas Feuillatte Brut to celebrate the event.
Then appetizers, like lobster margarita with avocado, mango, and fontina cheese, as well as black-truffle mini-quiche
While noshing on our hors d’oeuvres, we watched the artistic galley staff create ice carvings, along with ingenious fruit and vegetable table settings.
This was followed by a brief tour of the kitchen to look over the shoulders of the culinary crew preparing and plating the meals for the sitting dinner passengers.
All the above culminatde in a procession into the main dining room where our specially prepared, multi-course dinner was served.
Right on schedule, Chef Bellesi began to lead our walking tour of his vast stainless domain.
During our sparkling wine toasts, we realized this chef’s table was not to be like any other we had previously experienced. Not only would it be conducted by a great Italian chef – but one who was also an extraordinary entertainer with a gift of contagious laughter.
Chef Bellesi’s cheerful laughter was so genuine, and totally disarming – that there was no escaping his charm. Within minutes, he had all of us wrapped around his little finger, and totally absorbed in his every word.
To make the situation even more hilarious, Neville, the maître d', was the perfect comic foil for Ottavio’s Italian-accented antics. He was Martin to the chef’s Lewis, Abbott to his Costello, and Hardy to his Laurel. The ad hoc comedy team of Bellesi and Saldanha had us in stitches throughout the evening.
We Learned and We Laughed
Our two hosts exhibited a high knowledge of food and wine. The chef added to the group’s understanding of the evolution of Italian cuisine from the basics of simple fresh ingredients to contemporary flavoring techniques.
Italian chefs often work with fewer ingredients and less elaborate preparations than others, making the quality of the ingredients of paramount importance. Chef Bellesi explained how the composition of Italian-style grand cuisine becomes richly enhanced when blended with traditional Italian techniques of cucina casalinga (home cooking)..
On to the Table
A notable aspect of Italian dining is that the first course is frequently a filling dish like risotto or pasta. So it was at our table as we were presented succulent marinated poachedhalibut atop a generous portion of porcini mushroom risotto.
Soon after, an Amalfi lemon sorbet...
Then came the lobster thermidor...
...and a filet mignon Rossini, accompanied by a delectable truffled herb rack of lamb, mustard hollandaise, rosemary jus and lemon-butter fondue, roasted Parisienne potatoes, and sautéed fresh market vegetables.
The above preceded potted Stilton with port wine reduction and walnut bread, and all was finished-off with a delicate marble chocolate semifreddo with a raspberry soft center, topped off with a meaningful coffee and Chef Ottavio’s...
homemade biscotti & amaretti. What an incredible feast!
Not an Easy Task
A chef’s table is an elaborate undertaking that puts a strain on a kitchen’s resources and staff. In restaurants, the event often takes place after the nightly kitchen rush.
In that regard, we found our lavish affair to be a testament to Chef Ottavio’s ability to create, organize, and coordinate the serving of our event – while his galley team was seamlessly providing superb service to the main body of 1,000+ passengers in the busy dining room around us. Amazing!
Abetted by many of his key staff, Chef Bellesi personally crafted our special chef’s-table menu, and remained involved in the preparation and presentation of the feast from appetizer to desert.
Along with the ship’s maître d', the head sommelier was there to describe the exactly paired wines that were selected for each of our courses.
At the end of our fabulous gourmet adventure, each participating couple received a hard-cover copy of, “Courses - A Culinary Journey,” autographed by Neville and Ottavio, along with a group picture – and the ladies departed with a rose. This was an affair to remember.
Considering the investment in food, wine, supplies, and key staff time, we cannot fathom how Princess could make a profit on what each of the ten guests paid for the evening’s Epicurean enjoyment.
We rarely mention prices in our articles because prices change, but we found it amazing that our 3-hour gourmet spectacle cost us less than US $100 per person. Certainly, all the participants will talk about their bon vivant adventure with friends and family for years – and that may just be what Princess has in mind.
If you ever have an opportunity to participate in a chef’s table on a Princess Cruise ship – by all means, take it! Seating is limited so apply early to avoid disappointment.
And if the uber-funny pair of Bellesi and Saldanha should happen to be on your ship, absolutely do not miss their afternoon cooking demonstrations.
There is so much more to them than cooking.
For more information about Princess Cruises click here.
Happy travels and bon appetit!
Suggested reading regarding Princess Cruises by Wayne and Judy:
© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff
Photos © Judy Bayliff