[Photo: Max Silvestri]
Over four days at sea, I see no one happier than Hubert Keller. The Alsatian-born chef and Top Chef Master has an armful of restaurants and James Beard Awards, but despite dedicating 30 years of his life to the pursuit of culinary excellence, it's hard to imagine that food makes him any happier than how he feels at the moments he drops the bass during his two DJ gigs on Top Chef: The Cruise. The look of pure, unbridled joy on this man's face as he releases the tension again and again during a playlist of EDM and Top 40 hits is infectious. I catch myself screaming a couple times, but I am pretty drunk.
[Photo: Max Silvestri]
The music is great fun, and I am dancing, but as I look around at a sea of Top Chef fans of all ages and sizes in formal wear smiling and swaying their hips in the breeze, floating on the ocean off the coast of Florida, I can't quite believe where I am. How did I end up on a cruise ship filled with thousands of Top Chef fans, hosts, winners, and "fan favorites"? How did we all come to be so raucously and decadently celebrating a television program built to showcase tradesmen? Does it have anything to do with food? One afternoon at brunch I tell two married female traveling companions that I like to cook at home. I don't say whether I'm any good. One of them says, "Would you ever aspire to be Top Chef?" I told her no, certainly not, and she said, "Why not? You're still young, you're articulate, you've got the look." For many here, that's what Top Chef is all about.
For six years and eight seasons I've written about Bravo's Top Chef for this website. I did some quick math — my articles on each episode average 2,100 words, and each season has 15 episodes, give or take — and I've written approximately 250,000 words about Top Chef. That's not quite as long as George Eliot's Middlemarch, but it's pretty close. Also, I've never read my recaps from start to finish, but I don't imagine they're as good as Middlemarch, though I'd like to hope they say even more than that novel about class, social evolution, and the imperfections of marriage.
Was a Top Chef cruise worth the possibility of having to "go number 2 in bags," as I heard a CNBC anchor refer to it? Yes.
Eater asked about sending my girlfriend and me on this cruise back in August, and I was a little nervous. Did I really want to interact with these chefs in person? I called season five winner Hosea Rosenberg a "thumb-head" for years, even in recaps of seasons he wasn't on, and he was going to be on this cruise. (The nickname is a play on the fact that his head looks like a thumb.) I'm sure most of these chefs do not read or care about what's written about them online, but you never know. What if Hosea got me, as the Rolling Stones sang, "under his thumb-head"? But I made peace with this quickly, as I wanted to go on a boat and eat until I got sweaty. My confidence only wavered in February when Carnival's infamous "poop cruise" stranded passengers off the Yucatan Peninsula on a ship where the walls literally wept diarrhea. Was a Top Chef cruise worth the possibility of having to pee in the shower and "go number 2 in bags," as I heard a CNBC anchor refer to it? Yes.
Before Top Chef: The Cruise, I had never been on a cruise. To rephrase that using cruise jargon, I was a first-time cruiser, never having cruised. You hear variations of the word "cruise" a lot on the ship, nearly as much as you hear the song "Red, Red Wine," and every time a lady next to me at dinner asked me if this was my first experience "cruising," I felt like I was about to get a nod and a wink from her husband that I had the all-clear sign to test out his wife. I did not know what to expect out of the whole thing. But I was staying positive. Best case scenario it would be an amazing vacation filled with food and sun and activities related to Top Chef, a show I genuinely enjoy. Worst case it'd be a nightmare of a time but I'd still have a juicy story to write. (Actually the worst case scenario is that the ship sinks in the middle of the Gulf and my obituary lists me as a blogger and stand-up comedian.)
Black smoke means the Fatican has chosen a new Pope. [Photo: Max Silvestri]
I spoke to chef Tom Colicchio, lead judge of Top Chef, on the final night of the trip, and he said that living in a bubble in New York like we do, it'd be easy to be cynical going into this experience, but you're going to have a much better experience if you keep an open mind. He said he was having a great time; he'd had downtime to read Rachel Maddow's new book and he thought it was excellent. And he's right about keeping an open mind, of course. He seemed skeptical about my choice to come on the cruise, and he asked why I was there. I told him Eater had sent me. I did not have to ask him why he was there. He was likely being paid enough to buy a boat of his own to live on, and that fee may have been why he felt so upbeat about the whole thing.
I did have some preconceived notions about what the trip might be like. I had read that David Foster Wallace essay (pdf) a long time ago, and he did not seem to like his particular time cruising. But I think in general he had a chemical difficulty extracting joy from experiences. I imagined cruises to be a slightly less fat version of the spaceship in Wall-E, with lots of lying around and feeding and aching joints. I had done my own research too. I found a blog post about "cruise-hacking," which I thought might give me tips on how to maximize the quality of my experience. The tips were mostly about how to maximize the quantity of the food in my stomach, like how there is no rule against filling large soda cups with the toppings from the soft serve topping bar and taking them back to your room. That's a good tip. No need to bring plaque gum on the trip if you can just chew handfuls of sprinkles in the privacy of your own stateroom.
I was told more than once not to feel shy about ordering multiple entrees.
Even good friends with cruise experience seemed to focus most of their advice on how to navigate meals; I was told more than once not to feel shy about ordering multiple entrees. If I wanted to order everything on the menu and then take one bite of each, I was allowed to do that. Want three of the entrees appetizer-sized? That's an option. I met a couple on the boat who "didn't feel like getting dressed" one night and had room service bring one of every single item on the menu to their room. If you can dream it, you can eat it.
Top Chef: The Cruise took place aboard the Celebrity ship Constellation, which holds roughly 2,000 guests. The ship has a giant two-floored dining room, two specialty restaurants, nearly a dozen bars, a buffet, a hamburger and hot dog grille, a basketball court, a cafe, a spa, an auditorium, a movie theater, and a lot more. There are no water slides, and the "kids' area" is half a mile from anything else, on the top-most deck at the aft of the ship, and it seemed like more of a prison than a destination for kids. (Related to that: Is there some sort of ship jail? I saw a lot of activity that bordered on arrestable, and I wonder what's done with people who act out a hundred miles from shore. Sadly, I never found out.)
The cruise was an adult playground, and the Top Chef-themed activities only supplemented Celebrity's standard array of attractions. Our ports of call were Key West, Florida, and Cozumel, Mexico, a standard itinerary. A different Carnival ship was always in our wake, and it docked the same places we did. It was fun to imagine we were in the middle of an extremely slow, gelato-filled chase scene around the Gulf of Mexico.
In hot pursuit. [Photo: Max Silvestri]
Celebrity did its best to schedule out every moment in every onboard venue. In the span of 15 minutes, you could journey the length of the ship and walk past a Scottish singer-songwriter playing Oasis covers, a poolside Zumba class, a seminar called "Learn Your iPad," an a capella group, a salsa band, a DJ playing in the coffee bar, a body sculpting class in the health club, and a showing of the film Sideways. (Celebrity was very on the nose with its movie selections. The other film shown was Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The in-room TV station showed marathons of Top Chef episodes.) During that walk across the ship, you'd have half a dozen chances to purchase a photo of yourself, book a shoreside excursion, or play a Sex and the City slot machine. You'd also encounter no shortage of opportunities to get a drink or food.
The ship goes wild for Zumba. [Photo: Max Silvestri]
Meals blurred together, because I never got a chance to get hungry again.
Oh the opportunities for food and drink. Food was truly unlimited, and with a Beverage Pass, so were the drinks. A stronger man than me might have exercised restraint, limiting the daytime intake of alcohol and between-meal snacks, passing on the dessert or room service. But I am not that stronger man. You know how you have to portion a dog's food, otherwise it'll just eat until its stomach explodes because it doesn't know any better? That's me. I do not know any better.
By the last day my hands were shaky from all the consumption. Meals blurred together, because I never got a chance to get hungry again. Two nights in a row we ordered room service at two in the morning only to be awoken by the porter with the food an hour later. We'd passed out full, but we'd wake up and dutifully scarf down the burger or the personal pizza and pass back out again. It was shameful.
Losing $40 in three minutes is such a Miranda. [Photo: Max Silvestri]
The brunch felt like being at the wedding of a Rockefeller in the 20's.
Tom Colicchio spent a few minutes at one of the Q&As plugging the documentary on hunger he produced called A Place at the Table. The documentary tackles the fight against hunger in America, and Tom urged his attentive audience to realize that hunger is a political problem as well, and one Americans can solve. The crowd cheered, and the message of the film is a great one, but it was hard to reconcile hearing that message not hours after the boat's passengers had waddled through a Sunday brunch with sculptures made out of cheese, watermelon, and ice, a tractor trailer's worth of dessert, and a chef devoted entirely to making shrimp cocktails. The brunch felt like being at the wedding of a Rockefeller in the 20's. The decadence was staggering. It was the kind of buffet where the options are so overwhelming you are paralyzed by indecision. My first plate of food was pineapple-glazed smoked ham, a beet salad, crab Benedict, and a piece of tuna sushi.
Gouda Buddha. [Photo: Max Silvestri]
After the cruise, a friend asked me if I got terrible diarrhea; he'd heard the stories in the news about the Norovirus, a stomach bug that seems to thrive in closed communities like cruise ships. The ship's attention to hygiene is intense, thankfully; I took a 30-minute tour of the galley, and about ten minutes of that tour was explaining how militant their hand-washing regimens are, and how dangerous bacteria in the kitchen would be to the ship's passengers. It felt like I was getting a tour of a medical laboratory. But no, I did not get any Norovirus diarrhea. I only got regular American diarrhea, the kind an eater like me earns and feels at peace with, knowing he ate as much as I did.*
This telephone is in the handicapped stall in case you need to make an emergency call to the "Fun Factory." [Photo: Max Silvestri]
For the fans aboard, the main attractions were Top Chef-related. Half of the dinner menu was Top Chef-themed, with "famous" dishes from seasons past. We were told that the Top Chefs on the ship went down into the galley to supervise the preparation of their meals, and the classic Top Chef dishes were the best things I tasted onboard. Yet even bad dishes were like the head of a Hydra; if you sent one back to the kitchen, you could have three more sent in its place.
On Sunday afternoon there were poolside cooking demonstrations, with two chefs at a time bantering back and forth while they worked together to teach the audience new techniques. Even if you weren't paying attention to the demonstration, the chefs' audio was piped loudly throughout the outdoor decks. You couldn't read a book or use the toilet without hearing chef Spike Mendelsohn scream to the audience to "Give it up for..." various things.
Animals sun themselves while Fabio talks about ravioli. [Photo: Max Silvestri]
Cooking on TV is compelling because of editing and human drama. The live Quickfires had neither.
There were also live Quickfires. There were two of these a night, and they were always packed to the gills. Audience volunteers joined chefs onstage for challenges familiar to anyone that's watched the show. The MC was shaky, and the whole enterprise exposed the cracks in the entire conceit of this trip: Cooking on TV is compelling because of editing and human drama. The live Quickfires had neither. The closest thing to human drama was during a late-night Quickfire when Italian chef Fabio Viviani showed up a bit inebriated and swore and yelled. I thought it was charming, but I overheard guests say that his off-color language had lost him a few fans. And there was certainly no editing. During a sandwich Quickfire, a timer appeared on the screen counting down twenty minutes. These chefs don't need twenty minutes to cook a sandwich, and I certainly don't want to spend twenty minutes watching them make one with an arm tied behind their backs, literally, from 28 rows back. I walked out.
I bet this woman will revisit her iPad recording of a live Quickfire for years to come. [Photo: Max Silvestri]
Obviously the dining room was entirely lit, and we were provided chunky black Top Chef-branded blindfolds.
On Saturday night, we dined at a large table in the main dining room for "Dining in the Dark," a special Top Chef meal experience meant to delight and confuse one's senses. Everyone at the table was chattering about how they'd heard that in big cities, Dining in the Dark is truly done in the dark, and that all the servers are blind. That was not the case at the cruise ship version. Obviously the dining room was entirely lit, and we were provided chunky black Top Chef-branded blindfolds in our cruise totes; they felt and looked almost exactly like a strapless padded bra. We were meant to put the bras on our head before the food arrived. It did not seem that the servers were given any specific instruction on how to conduct this novelty dining experience.
Our table was lucky enough to have one woman not participating, so she would give us instructions on when to put our blindfolds on and when to avoid sticking our thumb in the pâté. Other tables weren't so lucky. A distressed woman ran over to our table after our first course with her blindfold around her forehead and said, "Do you know how this works? No waiter has even talked to us." Her table had just been sitting quietly with their blindfolds on, waiting. Meanwhile, half the dining room did not wear blindfolds, and rightly spent much of their meals staring at the bozos trying to eat a whole snapper filet half-submerged in tomato broth without looking at it. The dish, from the Top Chef side of the menu, was chef Kristen Kish's, and it was delicious, but it was not exactly suited for eating blind. Being blindfolded in a public place and trying and failing to do a messy, simple task while others stare at you sounds like a textbook anxiety nightmare. I think it means you're going through menopause.
[Photo: Max Silvestri]
People I talked to on the ship had wildly varying expectations of what this cruise would be. The cruise's ad campaign and its website were vague; we knew Tom and Top Chef judge Gail Simmons would be there alongside past contestants, and that there would be live Quickfires, whatever that meant. I got the feeling that not even the chefs knew what to expect. Was it a paid vacation for them, or would they be working the soft serve machine at the buffet and standing for photos eight hours at a time? It was a bit of both.
The chefs and their guests often ate cordoned off from the unwashed masses.
On the last night, we dined with a couple of experienced cruisers intensely let down by the whole experience. They thought the chefs should be down in the galley cooking. As the ship's kitchen already had eleven chefs and 121 cooks working to get 9,000 meals out a day, I'm not sure what use a Top Chef on the line would have been. The husband pointed across the balcony to the VIP-area of the San Marco Dining Room, where the chefs and their guests often ate, cordoned off from the unwashed masses. He said, "Every meal, they should be here making rounds in the dining room, shaking hands and introducing themselves." He was angry, and I was nervous; sitting across the dinner table from a furious stranger in a Hawaiian shirt holding a knife and a cocktail is disconcerting. This guy wanted the chefs cooking the food he was eating while also talking to us while they did it. That was likely impractical. I for one am glad my meal wasn't interrupted by an uncomfortable chef forced at gunpoint to make small talk and pose for photos with vacationing super-fans. It would have felt like a Disney character breakfast.
If people bought tickets to Top Chef: The Cruise in the hope of constant and direct interactions with all the announced hosts and chefs, they were disappointed. I did not go on the cruise with any special press access. Some press was invited by Bravo, and presumably they got some time with the hosts and contestants, but Eater sent me to have the same experience as the 2,000 Top Chef fans buying staterooms with their own money.
If you wanted to look at the Top Chefs in the flesh, from a distance, it was easy.
If you wanted to look at the Top Chefs in the flesh, from a distance, it was easy. All the Top Chefs on the boat made onstage appearances at Quickfires, cooking demonstrations, Q&As, and book signings, and there was an assortment of specialty events too. Different chefs hosted ping pong, poker, and basketball tournaments. (I think Spike Mendelsohn faced off a pregnant lady in the finals of the ping pong tournament, and she promised to name the kid after him if he lost. He won.) Surprisingly, these competitions were not much of a draw. Maybe the activities were too strenuous. Top Chef season three fan favorite Casey Thompson ran some kind of excursion in Cozumel, Mexico which involved driving Jeeps and tasting tequilas, a dangerous-sounding combination.
Do you have the skills? To comfortably walk and breathe? [Photo: Max Silvestri]
Top Chefs in the wild were more rare. Areas on the decks and in the restaurant were frequently roped off for VIP-only access, and many took advantage of this segregation. The hosts and guests frequently wandered the decks with security guards following closely behind them. As everyone on this boat was drunk the majority of the day, the fear of an overly aggressive fan invading one's personal space was justified. All the contestants on the boat have dealt with some level of fame since their television appearances, but out in the real world this fame is likely limited to particular settings; in their own restaurants and at food world events.
Showing up on somebody's television for fifteen weeks in a row breeds a certain type of unnatural familiarity.
Top Chef: The Cruise was four days at sea with a literal boatload of people for whom these chefs are giant celebrities, and showing up on somebody's television for fifteen weeks in a row breeds a certain type of unnatural familiarity, where everyone is known by their first name. Every time the chefs stepped out onto the boat, they were mobbed. I spoke to Top Chef Texas fan favorite Chris Crary his first night mingling in the crowds, and there was a look of fear in his eyes, like a cornered animal. I understood it. I spoke to Kristen Kish, winner of the most recent season, for fifteen minutes on the pool deck, and I spent about thirteen of those fifteen minutes standing to take pictures of Kish with friendly and nervous fans.
Kish was never anything but appreciative and polite during these interactions, but one could see how it would wear on you, especially when you're just trying to get from your stateroom to the theater. Later, I saw a young female cruiser, a frequent and rude presence across the trip, yell at Kristen, "Tiffany! Sweetheart! Will you sign my book?" Kristen said, "I'm not Tiffany." The fan said, "Oh sorry, I stopped watching the show two seasons ago, but I know you're somebody. Sign it here." Entitlement, aggression, and alcohol are a heady brew.
We found these sandals abandoned at 1am in the casino [Photo: Max Silvestri]
Chefs with families fared better out and about. It's hard to stay cooped up in a stateroom when you've got a four-year-old by your side. Top Chef All-Stars winner Richard Blais and Top Chef: Seattle runner-up Brooke Williamson, along with their families, were often by the pool, and mercifully fans mostly gave them space. (My girlfriend made chit-chat with Williamson's husband at the coffee bar one morning without realizing who he was. The boat was about to dock at Key West, and my girlfriend jokingly asked him if he would, "Explore dee island, mon?" He was confused, as Florida is not in Jamaica. He politely excused himself. We never confirmed if he explored the island, man.)
Chefs Angelo Sosa and Mike Isabella were a constant presence on the poolside deck. Angelo was usually shirtless, and increasingly sunburnt, but both had big drinks in their hands and even bigger smiles on their faces for any and all fans. I never saw Tiffany Derry or Casey Thompson hanging around. Tom and Gail appeared and disappeared quickly, usually in the middle of a flurry of handlers.
For most guests we talked to, the entire Top Chef cruise experience was a smashing success.
For most guests we talked to, the entire Top Chef cruise experience was a smashing success. And we talked to a lot of guests. To my surprise, the most fun part of the trip was the open seating and the strangers we met on the trip. I live in Brooklyn, so when I go out to eat, everyone looks like me, is roughly my age, and probably enjoys the same bands and movies. I don't make a point to talk to strangers at home. Most of the cruise is spent talking to strangers.
Twenty minutes after boarding the boat a woman showed us how she brings homemade wine glass coozies onto cruises so that her white is always chilled. That first night we sat next to a lively and fascinating older German couple for what turned into a three hour dinner. I have dear friends with whom I would not want to spend three hours at dinner, yet here I was on my fifth glass of wine listening to a retired nuclear physicist talk in his thick German accent about the need in Colorado for bear spray. "We have many black bear, so you must carry bear spray. It is strong and the bears hate it. But you have to be careful, because one time a little bit of spray get on my horse under his saddle, and I could not ride him for weeks. If you spray into wind, it get in your eyes and I tell you, it BURNS." I had no idea there was such a thing as bear spray, much less how unpleasant it was for horses. Meanwhile, my girlfriend was engaged in a spirited discussion about Palestine with the man's wife, a topic generally best avoided during the dessert course. These sorts of interactions happened again and again; email addresses were exchanged, and one genuinely felt like these were real friendships, even if they existed only at sea. By the end of the cruise the husband had offered me the use of his home in Colorado and the keys to one of his cars if I ever needed it.
Always come prepared with a homemade wine coozy. [Photo: Max Silvestri]
The woman couldn't contain her joy. "We got engaged!"
It was all unexpected but welcome, the kind of openness that's rare in New York but began to seem commonplace on a cruise ship, fueled by the strangeness of the experience, the isolation, and so, so much alcohol. After meeting a couple from Kentucky at dinner, we bumped into them a few hours later. The woman couldn't contain her joy. "We got engaged!" Within an hour after a meal spent exchanging friendly small talk with us about eating and drinking, they'd retired to their stateroom and he'd proposed. We were the first people they'd spoken to after this momentous life event. We bought them champagne, and we learned that their first dates had been on Wednesday nights, to cook and watch Top Chef together, and that this cruise was a surprise 40th birthday present for the groom-to-be. By the end of the cruise, my girlfriend had an invitation to the young lady's bachelorette weekend. I might see the couple during a stopover in Nashville next week.
Life on a cruise ship is surreal, altogether disorienting and strange. A cruise ship experience tailored to fans of a reality television program feels even stranger, and many times during the weekend my experience bordered on hallucinatory. I can only imagine it was a similar experience for the stars of Top Chef.
However crazy Tom Colicchio's journey in life has been, I can not imagine he ever expected to be playing Creedence Clearwater Revival covers onstage on a boat off the coast of Mexico to a sea of smiling fans. Maybe he did. He's a savvy guy. At one point, during a Q&A, Tom rebuffed advice he'd once heard given to young chefs. "The guy said to work hard, shut up, and keep your head down." Tom disagreed. "I think you should work smart. I think you should open your mouth and ask questions. And I think you need to keep your head up and see what's happening around you." It's good advice, advice chef Colicchio has clearly followed. But young chefs should remember it's a long road from chopping carrots at a diner to wailing on your guitar and singing "Green River" in a fedora on a five-day vacation dedicated to the empire you helped build.
*I kept a diary of everything I consumed on the cruise, in chronological order. If anything, I left some stuff out. I also drank water.
Thursday: Mimosa, Padmatini (a Top Chef-themed gin martini), pork chop, polenta, roasted mushrooms, roasted squash, margarita, Rum boat drink, Peroni, Diet Coke, Peroni, hot dog with sauerkraut, French Fries, mini taco hors d'ouvres, a fried shrimp, a Bahama Mama, shooter of crab soup, five glasses of wine, lobster bisque, porcini risotto, seared pork belly, dover sole, a trio of warm croustilliant, Knob Creek, Miller Lite, 2 Corona Lights, cheeseburger, fries.
Friday: scrambled eggs, corned beef hash, orange juice, iced coffee, Saltines, raw oysters and clams, peel and eat shrimp, beer, pina colada, margarita, cheeseburger, gin & tonic, two slices of pizza, a meatball with red sauce, gin & tonic, chocolate, Martini, wine, bread, wine, a Manhattan, roasted lobster appetizer, salmon rillettes, beef tournedo, duck breast, cheese plate, Martini, vodka soda, Miller Lite, a Manhattan, Miller Lite, club sandwich, fries
Saturday: iced coffee, apple juice, scrambled eggs, hash browns, smoked salmon, bagel, cream cheese, iced coffee, Sol, pina colada, two tacos, a quesadilla, guacamole, chips, gin & tonic, Manhattan, 3 glasses of wine, Fernet Branca, chicken liver pate, red snapper and leeks, beef short rib, banana cream pie, 2 vodka sodas, Champagne, pepperoni pizza & blue cheese
Sunday: iced coffee, donut, salmon, cream cheese, bagel, crab cakes Benedict, smoked ham, tuna sushi, coffee, Bloody Mary, beet salad, shrimp cocktail, smoked trout, cheesecake lollipop, 7 and 7, pina colada, Corona Light, cheeseburger, fries, Martini, a mini corned beef sandwich, Tom Collins, 2 glasses of wine, Sambuca, coffee, Patroni, 2 Miller Lites, 2 Maker's Marks, some kind of sweet gin and passion fruit drink
Monday: sweet escape, shame, regret, indigestion, more shame.