It was a simple task. All I had to do to start making smoked sweet potato soup to Molly Brandt’s recipe was to dice half an onion, which had already been peeled and was waiting by the chopping board amid a sea of stainless steel.
I am a master of the kitchen at home. I’ve made soup. I’ve diced onions. So I didn’t wait to be shown how to do it by the star chef who has been given control of the top restaurant on board giant new cruise ship Allure of the Seas – the biggest in the world.
With the first slice of my knife, I apparently revealed that I am an amateur cook at best, and possibly even a rank novice. Molly (above) could hardly hide her disdain. “This is too big,” she said, screwing up her nose as she held up a half-inch piece of onion. “You should have sliced horizontally like this before slicing down this way and then again at right angles.”
Into the pan went the onion anyway, with some butter and a pinch of salt “to bring out the juices.” Fortunately Molly, or one of her sous chefs, had already diced the sweet potato. I wasn’t going to get a chance to make the same mistake again, and everything went perfectly.
After blitzing the contents of my pan in a liquidiser and adding some cream and seasoning, it was in a bowl ready for garnishing with a wafer-thin slice of crispy-baked Serrano ham, a teaspoon of sherry cream and a dusting of almond powder.
Just one more step before it was ready to be served to guests at the $35-a-head, 76-seat 150 Central Park restaurant – real smoke from smouldering hickory chips was blown under the cloche, waiting to be revealed when the waiter lifted it off at the table. Heston Blumenthal, eat your heart out!
Molly won the opportunity to take charge of the restaurant – one of 26 on board the 225,000-ton ship – in an eight-week contest organised for Royal Caribbean International by the Culinary Institute of America. I probably wouldn’t have stood a chance even if I had put myself up for cooking sausages in the Dog House at the other end of Allure’s gastronomic scale.
At 1,187 ft (and two all-important inches), Allure of the Seas is longer than four football pitches, with 16 passenger decks and 2,706 cabins – hundreds with inside balconies overlooking leisure areas Central Park and the Boardwalk.
Allure will spend its days carrying up to 6,318 passengers around the Caribbean to destinations such as Labadee in Haiti, Cozumel in Mexico and Charlotte Amalie on the island of St Thomas. The crew numbers 2,384 and its members are from more than 80 countries.
During my three days on board the 6,300-passenger ship before it was christened last Sunday by Princess Fiona from the Shrek movies, I also served coffee in the only Starbucks at sea and I was put to work with my icing bag in the Cupcake Cupboard.
My instructor, Maria, was amused by my efforts at preparing a $4.65 caramel brulee latte, and 100 yards away at the other end of the cavernous Royal Promenade, Amy Shaffer let me loose on six $2.50 cupcakes, lathering on chocolate frosting, adding caramel and crushed nuts, and even creating a DreamWorks lion face.
We all know that cruising is all about food, but Allure of the Seas is also the ship of entertainment, according to Royal Caribbean’s Lisa Bauer, senior vice-president in charge of hotel operations.
So I also met the stars of Chicago: The Musical, which is being performed in the ship’s 1,400-seat Amber Theatre – and I was delighted to find that the three female leads are all from the UK.
Helen Turner, 22, the dizzy blonde Roxie Hart, is from Tadcaster in Yorkshire and was working as an usher at the London theatre production of Mamma Mia when she auditioned. Genevieve Nicole, 26, the scheming Velma Kelly, lives in Epsom, Surrey and has previously played the part in an international production in Kuala Lumpur and with a touring company in Britain. Linda John-Pierre, 42, who plays prison matron “Mama” Morton comes from Stratford in the East End of London, but has since moved west to Twickenham.
The 90-minute show, only slightly cut down from the full Broadway production, sizzles along with some of the shiniest teeth and longest legs at sea raising the temperatures higher than the Caribbean sun beating down on the decks outside.
The audience gave an even warmer response to the ship’s other big production, Blue Planet, an eco-friendly journey from rain forest to oceans, desert and mountains, in which Genevieve plays Mother Nature.
The 25 cast members – 15 dancers, four featured singers and six gymnasts – form one of the biggest companies at sea, and the staging was truly spectacular. The costumes were so cleverly designed It was a total surprise when 17 people emerged from the branches of a giant tree centre stage, and those gymnasts were put through their paces on three trampolines concealed in a huge boulder.
The entertainment doesn’t stop at the Amber Theatre. A troupe of skaters perform in the ice rink and Olympic divers feature in the Aqua Theatre. There’s an intimate jazz club, a comedy club, lively late-night disco, and the unique talent of Hawaiian Matt Yee who sets up camp (in every sense) at the grand piano in the Schooner Bar.
On my sailing there was even a performance by Liu Wei, the 23-year-old winner of China’s Got Talent, who lost has arms in a childhood accident and plays the piano with his toes.
Not everyone will get the chance to see him, but they will not be able to get away from Princess Fiona and other animated characters from DreamWorks. Shrek, Donkey and their friends, not to mention Kung Fu Panda. the penguins and other creatures from Madagascar, feature in colourful parades along the Royal Promenade and turn up for character breakfasts. They are also on screen in the 3D movies screened in the ship’s theatre.
For the more energetic, there are two FlowRider surf simulators, two climbing walls, a hair-raising zipwire ride over the Boardwalk, a basketball court and a crazy golf course.
Book an eight-night trip for two through Virgin Holidays from £1,239 per person. Price includes return flights, one night pre-cruise stay at the Westin Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale, and a seven-day cruise which visits Haiti, Jamaica and Mexico, departing September 10, 2011. Go to www.virginholidayscruises.co.uk or call 0800 840 9683.