Our cruise, the line’s signature “Epicurean Sailing,” set sail with James Beard Award-winner Hugh Acheson, chef and owner of several restaurants in Atlanta and Savannah, and a judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” He brought along a sous chef and his wine director and head sommelier, Steven Grubbs. We were excited, not just because we’re “Top Chef” fans, but also because the James Beard Awards are a bit like the Oscars of the food world — Acheson won the Best Chef: Southeast award in 2012, which is a big deal.
Throughout the cruise, which included stops in France, Spain, and Portugal on the 212-passenger Star Legend, we got a chance to see three cooking demonstrations by Acheson and participate in three wine tastings with Grubbs.
Acheson is at his best, and a real natural, when he’s cooking in front of a crowd — smart, funny, and knowledgeable. (Case in point: A passenger asked if the olive oil he was using was virgin, and Acheson quipped “I don’t know. I haven’t talked to this one, but it looks virginal.”) He also gave excellent tips. As he poached eggs to top his Lyonnaise salad, he added that they poach better if you slide them into the water from a ramekin rather than from the shell. With just a couple hundred passengers and plenty of other distractions onboard (spa treatments, an open gym, a sunny pool deck) not every passenger came to every demo, so each felt like an intimate, special experience.
Grubbs, too, made his wine tastings educational as well as relatable, with down-to-earth descriptions and plenty of pairing advice. The obvious friendship between Grubbs and Acheson charmed the crowd, as did the wines themselves — which included a variety of pricier local wines, and even Normandy cider on the day we docked in St. Malo.
The market tour in La Rochelle was led by the line’s executive chef Graeme Cockburn, who was trailed by several people from the kitchen staff, one carrying cash and the other a cart in which to whisk the purchases back to the ship. As we wandered through the beautiful open-air market, Cockburn dazzled passengers with his knowledge of the ingredients, picking up strawberries, tomatoes, oysters, truffled brie, charcuterie, and even chocolate-dipped handmade marshmallows. The whole group had generous tastings of each ingredient, and the rest was brought back to the ship. Onboard, the tomatoes made their way into a soup, the brie onto the evening’s cheese tray, the cured meats and pâté onto the next day’s lunch buffet, and the marshmallows onto a dessert buffet on deck, surrounded by house-made macaroons.
In the Spanish port of El Ferrol, both Cockburn and Acheson led market tours. We felt lucky to end up on Acheson’s, but it was hard to deny the allure of Cockburn’s love of storytelling and educating passengers about food. A third group’s leader bought wine, chorizo, and manchego, and we all drifted in and out of their little party for tastings, too, before picking out our own food souvenirs for later.