Holland America invited Short Order aboard the ms Noordam a few weeks ago to meet its new Culinary Council. We nearly plotzed after discovering that meant having lunch with David Burke, Charlie Trotter, Jacques Torres, Jonnie Boer, and council chairman Rudi Sodamin, also the cruise line's consulting master chef. Holland claims it is the first to assemble a group like this with the intent of improving its menus, giving guests opportunities to interact with their favorite toques, and adding just some all-around cred to the culinary offerings.
The world-famous chefs (along with Marcus Samuelsson who, regrettably, was a no-show) were invited to contribute 10 of their recipes to the line's ever-cycling menus and they'll be expected to eventually hop aboard to lead some demos and teach classes.
This royal culinary court came together thanks to Sodamin's efforts. The Austrian-born master chef is no stranger to the kitchen, nor the cruise industry. Born as part of triplets to a mom who had 11 children in all and was a chef, Sodamin was taught, "If you're a cook you'll never go hungry."
Today, claiming to be "the most highly decorated chef at sea," he oversees 15 ships on seven continents. And Sodamin keeps pumping out cookbooks, some for the cruise line (A Taste of Elegance, for example) and some solo projects, like the red-flocked Seduction and Spice. The guy is truly busy, but once we found out his home base is in Coral Gables we managed to trap him at a nearby coffee shop for a chat.
New Times: So I'll admit, I was pretty impressed with all the star power in the room. But do those chefs have big egos?
Rudi Sodamin: Definitely not. These are the best chefs in the industry we could find. True chefs are about sharing. They share the recipes, share the passion. By the way, good chefs have no ego. Bad chefs, lots of ego.
What's your professional background?
We had an apprenticeship in Austria--in the European system you go to work and, at the same time, you go to school. Then you get your bachelor's. (To be a waiter in Austria you go to school for three years.) I decided at 14 I wanted to be a chef. I worked at a hotel restaurant. I wanted to be a pastry chef. I went to Geneva and worked at the Hotel InterContinental. Then I transferred to Paris and worked at a 3-star restaurant. Then I went to the Waldorf Astoria in New York three months and at Seattle Olympic Hotel as a line cook.
After all that you still worked as a line cook?
My English wasn't that good. I had to learn.
And how did you get into the cruise industry?
I got offered to work on a ship--there were only three luxury cruise lines at the time--as a sous chef and after three months they fired the chef. I became executive chef and I was hardly 23 years old. Then I published my first cookbook. It's about cooking aboard a ship on a luxury cruise line. I was the first to take cruise cuisine to the next level. I focused on fresh ingredients, presentation, making the kitchen work. I had access to the best chefs in the world.
Then we were sold, the Cunard boat to the QE2 Corporation. I was an executive chef at 24. That was the biggest challenge of my life. The food was disgusting when I got there. I had 200 Brits in the kitchen and two Austrians.
How many passengers?
Eighteen hundred people and five restaurants. My vision was to bring the ship culinary recognition throughout the world. I said, that's bullshit. I need to change to an international group. I want French, Italians, Americans, Austrians, Chinese, Filipinos. I need women in the kitchen! The answer was always, "No." It was hard to get them there. But I put women in the kitchen and also in restaurant management at that time. I had 12 women chefs on the QE2. They never let me down.
Speaking of which, I noticed your council lacked Miami representation and there were no women. Why not?
I asked three women, but they all have commitments. But we'll have one next year.
How did you choose the folks on this council then?
I contacted 30 chefs. Some said "no" because of previous commitments. Thomas Keller called himself. He said he would like to be on the council--I was very honored he called himself--he said he couldn't do it, but he'd like to be associated. Some chefs had their secretaries call. One said her boss wouldn't do it for less than $10,000 a day. [Editor's Note: The aforementioned chef will remain unnamed, but let's just say we feel he should be challenged to a throwdown.]
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So how much do you pay the members of your council?
We don't pay them a salary. We pay for their work to establish recipes, their time and travel, and for the right to use their names on the menu.
Come back tomorrow to find out why he and Michelle Bernstein were on the same sexual wavelength, which dish once served onboard was an epic failure, and just how connected Sodamin really is.