Making Memories with Chef Eric Klein
by Susan Montgomery
When I sailed last fall on a Holland America cruise aboard the Maasdam from Boston to Montreal, I knew it would be a special culinary experience because I was traveling with a group of food and travel writers, but I was in for some wonderful surprises I had not anticipated and will always remember.
The highlight of this “Conference at Sea” for members of the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association was the participation of Eric Klein, celebrated Executive Chef and Associate Partner from Wolfgang Puck’s Spago Las Vegas, one of this famous culinary destination’s most successful and renowned restaurants. Chef Klein was accompanied by his personable wife, Tori Klein, a talented marketing professional.
Chef Klein is charismatic, knowledgeable and committed to creating unique and delicious dishes using fresh ingredients. It is understandable why under his leadership Spago Las Vegas has earned a well-deserved reputation for creative, gourmet cuisine.
When we awoke the first morning of the cruise, we found ourselves close to the shores of the quaint coastal town of Bar Harbor, Maine. A group of us traveled to the shore on an early tender and headed for Eden Farmer’s Market, which was full to the brim of enticing, just-harvested produce. Our goal was to accompany Chef Klein as he shopped for our lunch, along with Chef Matt McPherson from the Looking Glass Restaurant at the Blue Nose Inn.
The plan was that later in the morning the chefs would prepare dishes with their farmer’s market bounty while collaborating on a gourmet five-course lunch that would be served to our group of food writers at the restaurant. This was a wonderful opportunity all the way around. Young Chef McPherson would be working with a top celebrity chef. Chef Klein would embrace the creative challenge of cooking with fresh newfound ingredients in an unfamiliar kitchen. And we, the lucky guests, would savor a unique farm-to-table meal prepared from ingredients we had helped choose. This would be a special, once-in-a-lifetime experience for all involved.
We enjoyed walking around the small, friendly farmer’s market with the two chefs as they contemplated their lunch plans and chose from among the vibrantly colored vegetables, breads, cheeses and seafood so beautifully displayed. But we had to move quickly since the chefs had an elaborate lunch to prepare. Chef Klein’s wife, Tori, kept us on schedule.
After shopping, we headed via bus to the Looking Glass Restaurant, located just a few minutes away on a cliff with breath-taking, panoramic views overlooking Frenchman Bay. We loved seeing our ship moored a few miles out to sea. And we were especially impressed a bit later, when the Maasdam’s captain and his wife joined us for lunch.
At the restaurant we first headed with the chefs to the restaurant’s own garden to choose more vegetables to add to our luncheon ingredients. We admired the burgeoning containers of herbs, including sage, parsley, rosemary, marjoram, basil and mint. We also wandered among the ripe carrots, cucumbers, zucchini and tomatoes. It was an idyllic setting on a lovely Saturday morning on the Maine coast.
Soon the chefs began preparing our extraordinary lunch. As preparations progressed, we sipped delicious Blacksmith’s Sparkling Blueberry Wine (from Maine of course) and snacked on a lovely charcuterie platter with many items right from the farmer’s market.
We were also able to quietly sneak into the kitchen, in small groups, to watch the chefs in action. We saw what makes Chef Klein so respected as he carefully chose ingredients, while discussing flavor combinations and presentation with meticulous attention to detail. We saw Chef McPherson’s passion for learning as he worked with Chef Klein to prepare innovative dishes. Later on our cruise, we would hear a presentation from Chef Klein in which he talked about how creating and serving delicious meals is “making memories.” As I look back on this experience, it is now clear that we were all in the midst of culinary memory-making.
While these preparations were taking place, some of our group toured the Blue Nose Inn with its welcoming General Manager and co-owner, Jim Ash. We were impressed with the charming hotel, which is rich in history but still offers modern amenities. We learned that it had been named the Blue Nose after a famous 1920s fishing vessel from Nova Scotia.
Now it was time to sit down to our gourmet, five-course lunch. The tables were beautifully set and, of course, the setting with the tranquil sea far below us added to the ambiance and inspiration of the occasion. And then the creative courses started coming.
The first course was a locally-harvested oyster with Bar Harbor halibut, imaginatively accompanied by pickled raw radish, Yuzu Kocho (a fermented Japanese sauce made from chili peppers), olives, wasabi, cubes of melon, and soy-lime ginger, all dramatically presented on a granite slab with seaweed. The halibut sat on a smooth black rock that I took home with me as a remembrance of this elegant meal. This course was not just uniquely creative but also delectable. This first course and those that followed paired nicely with Maine’s Cellar Door Winery Pinot Gris, which had vanilla and pear flavors that especially enhanced the fish dishes.
The second course was Peeky Toe Crab with mint, parsley, avocado, lemon vinaigrette and basil blossoms served with tomatoes, local goat cheese, and pesto drizzled with virgin olive oil. The next course was local butter-poached lobster, corn, French summer truffle, and mascarpone foam (called spume).
Our main course was local pork loin and tenderloin enticingly presented with grilled peaches, swiss chard from the restaurant’s garden, cipollini onions, a variety of just-picked herbs, and crunchy fava beans. We savored the surprising combination of flavors and textures in this rich dish, which was nicely matched with a bold, fruity Cellar Door Zinfandel.
Dessert was another creative masterpiece. We loved the local sautéed plums and raspberries served with a port wine sauce, cinnamon, ginger, goat cheese, honey ice cream and crumbled cannoli. This pleasing combination of ingredients was delicately garnished with rosemary and basil from the garden.
This meal would have been a hit under any circumstances, but the fact that most of the ingredients had been harvested a few hours earlier and then prepared just for us by two stellar chefs made it one of the most special meals I will undoubtedly ever enjoy.
We had the opportunity later during the cruise to listen to Chef Klein talk about his passion for good food and to watch him prepare another unusual and scrumtious dish. By then we were not surprised to learn that Chef Klein’s approach to preparing dishes is simple with a focus on allowing excellent ingredients to speak for themselves. Chef Klein emphasized, “If you respect food, it will respect you.” We also appreciated his emphasis on food as a way to bring friends and family together to create memories.
Then we were thrilled when right in front of us he prepared an especially imaginative dish — Truffle Semolina With Confit Egg Yolk, which we later tasted in the cruise ship dining room.
The dish seemed challenging to prepare but the result was like nothing I’ve ever tasted with its surprising, palate-pleasing mixture of tastes and creamy textures. You can click on this link for Linda Kissam’s article on Examiner.com for the recipe for this special dish in case you want to try it yourself.
The meals served on the Maasdam were also delicious and beautifully presented. I am amazed at how the ship’s chefs can prepare and present such consistently excellent meals to a huge group of guests, but they just kept doing it. Although Chef Klein’s dishes were the highlight for me, the entire cruise provided an outstanding culinary experience, especially since we also had some exceptional meals during shore excursions to such sites as Quebec City, Halifax and Prince Edward Island. There is no doubt that I gained a few pounds during this culinary adventure at sea, but it was certainly well worth my sacrifice.
In the photo to the right, Chef Klein (center) introduces some of the ship's chefs to our group of food writers.
Photos taken by Susan Montgomery and edited by Todd Montgomery.