MALCOLM ANDREWS meets a unique cruise chef
BOUTIQUE cruise vessel chef Ondrej Havlicek has given a whole new meaning to the Aussie expression “he’s good on the tooth”.
Of course, the idiom means someone likes his tucker. Havlicek certainly enjoys cooking five-star dishes … and he loves eating them, too.
But it was what he did when he left school that has everyone perplexed.
Like so many kids finishing their high school education, Ondrej didn’t really know what career he should pursue. The Czech Republic where he grew up, and especially the capital city of Prague, had a shortage of dentists and he decided to fill a hole … in a manner of speaking.
Yes, he was good at his job, good on the tooth. However after four years of drilling molars and bicuspids before packing them with amalgam fillings he was left unfulfilled.
For some reason – and to this day he still doesn’t really know why – he was drawn to a life on the ocean waves. So in 1996 he signed on as a junior officer on a Polish ship. From the very first day he knew he would be destined to sail the seven seas for the rest of his life.
“The ocean was in my blood, coursing through my veins,” he laughs. “I loved travelling to far-flung destinations. Yet there was still something missing.”
It turned out to be food.
“I had worked in hotels and realised that I enjoyed preparing and serving food,” he explains. “I don’t know where this all came from. There were no chefs in my family. It was just something I knew I could do, and do well.”
Training in the Swiss capital of Zurich followed before, in 2001, he was back at sea, working in the galleys of ships sailing in the Caribbean and off Alaska under the banner of Princess Cruises.
“It still wasn’t exactly what I really wanted,” he explains. “It was a bit like a production line in a factory. The chefs rarely got the chance to create something personal.”
But he certainly did something to make himself stand out from the rest. On one cruise he caught the attention of a rich American and was lured to the multi-millionaire’s private yacht to be his personal chef.
Then it was another mega-wealthy client, this time on another opulent vessel based in the Persian Gulf city of Dubai.
With both employers it is a case of ‘no names, no pack-drill’.
“I was well paid and the job came with an unwritten understanding that there would be ultimate discretion,” he says. “It was case of cooking for my boss and his family and the crew who sailed the yacht with an occasional dinner party at which I was able to let loose my creativity.”
Yet for all this Ondrej missed the rapport he had enjoyed with cruise vessel passengers.
So in April 2011 he joined the SeaDream Yacht Club, the Norwegian company that has the two identical mega-cruisers SeaDream I and II. On each a maximum of 112 passengers are pampered by 95 crew members, including the likes of 36-year-old Ondrej and his galley staff.
“It is so different to the big mega-liners with their thousands of passengers,” he points out. “On those ships the galley is like a factory … the steak on each plate, then the next step is the French fries and then the vegetables, all prepared in bulk. It is the same task at dinner each and every night.
“On SeaDream we are so different. There is no pre-cooking. And everything is fresh. I can go off at each port and see what fruit and vegetables are available and plan that night’s menu accordingly. I am at the markets in the morning and what I buy is on the passengers’ plates that evening.
“Of course, menus are planned in advance depending on the mix of passengers and we bring on board some 3000 kilos of the finest food at the start of each voyage. Alaskan crab-claws. New Zealand lamb. Lobsters from Maine. There is such a variety that if a passenger wants something special we are able to prepare a gourmet dish for him or her personally.”
Often Ondrej will take passengers on a tour of one of the markets.
“My favourite is St Tropez on the Mediterranean coast of France,” he explains. “Not only do the passengers get to find out why I buy certain vegetables, at St Tropez they also visit a stall set up outside a wonderful wine shop and get to taste several local Rosés while nibbling on various cheeses, breads and a superb local onion tart from nearby stalls and shops.
“It is one of the most popular of all the SeaDream shore excursions.”
Not that the passengers really have to go ashore to tantalise their tastebuds.
SeaDream I, where Ondrej is executive chef, and its sister ship SeaDream II recently achieved the highest rating for cuisine among all the small cruise vessels in the world, in a survey of 80,000 readers of the respected Condé Nast Traveler magazine.
What else can we say but Bon Appétit!
For the record: When Ondrej is on holidays and cooking for himself, his favourite meal is steak. It’s no wonder his ‘signature dish’ on board SeaDream I is a Beef Chateaubriand!
CRUISE prices on the two SeaDream Yacht Club vessels include all five-star a la carte dining, wines with lunch and dinner, select premium-brand drinks from the open bars, nightly cocktail gatherings, use of a 30 championship course golf simulator and state of the art fitness centre, gratuities, port charges and taxes.
They also offer free use of a wide range of power and sail water sports facilities (in ports where permitted by local authorities), and complimentary mountain bikes for self-conducted exploring ashore.
For full details see travel agents or visit www.seadream.com