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For Guest Chefs on High Seas, Full Speed Ahead : Cruise lines are finding that the fastest way to a passenger's heart is through the stomach.


On a recent Mexico-to-Hawaii crossing aboard Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2, the best-attended daytime program wasn't cash bingo, advice on stock market investments, an art lecture or a nostalgic trip back to the golden age of radio. It was chef Dominique Jamain's class on how to prepare Thai chicken salad and seared mahi-mahi with stir-fried vegetables.

Jamain, executive chef at Honolulu's Kahala Hilton Hotel, was serving as guest chef aboard the Ensenada-to-Honolulu sailing, part of the 1993 world cruise. He offered his version of Hawaiian and Asian cuisine on alternative menus for several dinners and one buffet lunch to the 739 passengers aboard, most of them Americans and British.

Nearly half ordered his first special dinner, despite competing menu choices such as prime rib and fresh Maine lobster. Most of Jamain's specialties were well-received, although a delicious sashimi-like seared tuna appetizer had some bewildered guests sending it back to the kitchen for more time on the fire.

This is the second year for QE2's guest chef program. More and more cruise lines are inviting star chefs on board. For an enthusiastic audience aboard Crystal Cruises' Crystal Harmony South American cruise last February, chef James Fan--of Jade West Chinese Restaurant in Los Angeles--stirred up macadamia-fried shrimp and a series of special dinners. On an Aug. 30 London-to-Barcelona sailing, the Royal Viking Sun will headline Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel from Los Angeles' Campanile restaurant, one of a series of food-and-wine cruises offered this summer and fall.

The proliferation of guest chefs at sea may be spurred partly by the high number of repeat passengers aboard longer cruises, especially on around-the-world sailings. And with so much competition, companies are constantly cooking up new diversions to keep loyal passengers coming back.

Another new perk on the QE2 is the Samuel Cunard Key Club, open only to passengers spending 33 days or longer on board. Similar to a concierge floor in a hotel, it offers light breakfasts, lunches, complimentary cocktails and canapes in a private club atmosphere, as well as the services of a concierge.

Hotel manager John Duffy enumerated other extras delivered to Key Club members' cabins--a green plant and floral arrangement, a wicker basket with deluxe toiletries, a gold Key Club pin, an initialed bathrobe that can be taken home, a leather-bound travel log, special cap and travel bag, a Cunard Windbreaker and a Wedgwood tea set--all of which are expected to encourage more passengers to book longer segments.

"The world cruise passengers and Key Club members always ask about the guest chefs coming," said Jonathan Wicks, the ship's executive chef. "They don't necessarily eat (the special dinners), but they want to be part of the overall glamour."

One of five Cunard ships offering extensive food-and-wine programs, the QE2 also headlines guest chefs from Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong during the current world cruise. At the same time, Sagafjord world cruises are sampling cuisine with guest chefs from Australia, India and Indonesia.

Andalusian food will be the theme when guest chef Simon Padilla of Puente Romano in Marbella joins the Vistafjord's April 24 Spain and Canary Islands sailing. Chef Patrick Ryan of Hamburg's Atlantic Hotel Kempenski cooks during a June 13 Baltic sailing, and chef Wolfgang Weissert of the Grand Hotel Park in Gstaad, Switzerland, is guest chef on a Britain and Ireland sailing Aug. 8.

The Ultimate Wine Cruise is scheduled for the Vistafjord Sept. 4 on an 11-day sailing from Hamburg to Barcelona, calling en route at famous chateaus in Bordeaux and featuring international authorities on wine, as well as guest chef Michel Wentz of the Domaine du Royal Club Evian in France.

The QE2 goes one step further to reward the palates of its upscale passengers: It is the only cruise ship to assign special dining rooms to passengers booking premium cabins.

The 240-seat Queen's Grill is reserved for passengers booking the top-priced suites and cabins. The two Princess Grills, with just over 100 seats each, are allocated to cabins in the next category down. Then there's the 624-seat Columbia restaurant for passengers who purchase mid-range cabins. Those buying lower-priced accommodations are assigned to the 420-seat Mauretania restaurant, which serves at two seatings except on the world cruise. The other restaurants offer single seating on all sailings.

In the Queen's Grill and the two Princess Grills, headwaiters circulate among the passengers at lunchtime with the evening menu and ask if anyone would like to make a special order for a dish not listed. A dedicated caviar fan, for instance, can order Sevruga whenever he wishes. A daily item on the Queen's Grill breakfast menu is shirred eggs with cream and caviar.

One repeat passenger on the world cruise makes up his own shopping list of vintage wines, which Cunard orders and stores for him in his own wine bin below deck. And a couple in the Queen's Grill writes specific menus, including frequent portions of fresh foie gras , to be served to them nightly during the cruise, while another pair delights in trying to stump the chefs with orders for such esoteric treats as sea-urchin souffle. "In the Queen's Grill," Wicks says, "if we have it we can prepare it,"

Hotel manager Duffy tells the tale of "a dear little old lady from Buxton" who wrote him after her cruise and said she was disappointed the ship didn't have bottled Buxton water. The next time he saw her name on the passenger manifest, he ordered a couple of cases and had bottles of it waiting in her cabin. "She was touched and thrilled," he says. And she keeps coming back.

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