Picture yourself sailing all summer aboard a $10 million yacht with one of Italy’s wealthiest couples. Money is no object, and the itinerary takes in the poshest ports along the Côte d’Azur, the Italian Riviera, and Capri. There’s no one on the boat but you, the tycoons, a small crew, and a brave chef who has agreed to the owner’s conditions, namely that he prepare all meals using only local ingredients found in ports and that no dish be repeated. Sounds like paradise, right?
Sure, unless you’re the chef. That man was David Shalleck, whose resume includes stints as top toque at some of the best restaurants in London, New York, Napa, and Provence. Shalleck’s recollections of his summer aboard Serenity — probably the most ennobling experience of his salad days — are memorably captured in his amusing book Mediterranean Summer. We recently corresponded with Shalleck about the book and his experience aboard Serenity.
Cooking three meals a day aboard a yacht for very demanding people can’t be easy. Was this the biggest challenge of your cooking career?
No doubt! A young American cooking regional Italian food for Italians in Italy, with no repeats, and at the same time preparing the crew’s meals from a small galley while under way — I’d say it’s right up there with opening a restaurant or producing the food for a full television series.
How did you keep things fresh day after day?
One of the dictates of the job was to prepare dishes that featured local flavors and indigenous ingredients, so I was in the markets and shops daily. Plus, there was only enough refrigeration on board to hold about two days’ worth of food. But with the bounty available on shore, I refrained from turning one of the refrigerators into a freezer.
Which ports proved the best for finding local ingredients?
The Provencal markets along the French coast are pretty amazing — Cannes, Antibes, and the famous Cours Saleya in Nice. Across the border, the Italian Riviera offers an abundance of great food shopping in San Remo, Santa Margherita Ligure, and Chiavari. After a few seasons in this quarter of the Mediterranean, I used to view the entire summer cruising schedule as one big shopping extravaganza and looked forward to getting certain things in certain places, or reconnecting with my favorite market vendors.
Which port was the least abundant, and what did you do when you discovered there were less-than-ideal provisions there?
This was always my biggest concern. When quality, variety, and abundance became an issue, the "stores" (pantry) of the yacht became my treasure trove. But the other challenge was the possibility of last-minute increases in the guest count. And, invariably, this would always occur in the most remote places!
Did you learn any new dishes or preparations from the locals you encountered in the various ports of call?
Food is an easy topic of conversation in the Mediterranean, so I picked up many tips from vendors, shopkeepers, fishermen, butchers, and people in the markets. One time in Ischia, while cleaning sea urchins on the dock with one of the deck hands, a gentleman walked up to us, struck up a conversation, and offered his method for preparing urchins with spaghetti: "Scoop the roe from the shells and toss with spaghetti, chili flakes, and chopped parsley over a very low flame. Add the pasta water little by little until the urchins melt and coat the pasta — almost like making a carbonara." It was delicious.
You fell in love with most of the places you called on that summer. If you could return to one place just because of the excellence of the local cuisine, and stay there forever, which port would it be?
That’s a tough question but I’d have to say the coastal region of the Var, behind Nice near Vence in France, or Santa Margherita Ligure in Italy. Then again, there are many places I haven’t been to yet. The great thing about the Mediterranean is that there’s no shortage of candidates.
Can you recommend a favorite restaurant in your favorite port of call? What makes it so special?
I wish I could remember the name of the little ristorante in the commercial port city of Leghorn a friend took me to. There was nothing fancy about the place other than the fact that their access to incredible fish and seafood was from day boat to table.
You make your home now in San Francisco. Is it the climate that attracts you to SF, the cuisine scene, or both?
Personally, I’m not a fan of the famous "marine layer" that blankets the city in summer because I like the sun. But I do like access to other places, and San Francisco is central to the Carmel Valley, Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, and Lake Tahoe. And for someone who likes to cook, access to ingredients in this part of the world is on par with the best fertile zones on the planet.