The cliché about cruises is that aboard ship, the food is all about bounteous buffets, less so about quality. All that’s sure to get tossed out the porthole May 29-June 5, when acclaimed area chefs Michael Hutchings and Christine Dahl will lead a culinary and wine cruise aboard Silversea’s less than one-year-old Silver Spirit on a Mediterranean adventure from Rome to Venice. “Christine is the carbohydrate queen,” Hutchings joked about his wife, “and I’ll be doing all the other stuff with local seafood and meats as we sail. We’ll host receptions, offer cooking classes, and lead offshore forays to restaurants, farmers markets, seafood markets, wine tastings.” Simply put, for the few area folks who sign up—they will join 550 other passengers—this won’t be cruising as usual.
“This is a new idea, as the foodie thing is so popular,” Dahl explained. Hutchings claimed they were approached by Cruise Bargains at a wine event at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, as the travel agency was looking for a way to market to more specific audiences. “I’ve wanted to do it for some time,” Hutchings said. “My friend, Kurt Grasing, in Monterey, has done it with Silversea six or seven times and has said fine things about the line. Christine has wanted me to go to Italy with her.” And, Dahl added, “We already work seven days a week, why not be on vacation doing it?”
The couple currently caters—see Michael’s Catering (michaelscateringsb.com) and Christine Dahl Pastries (santabarbaracakes.com)—but both have also held esteemed positions in the Santa Barbara culinary scene: Hutchings owned the famed Michael’s Waterside for 10 years while Dahl worked as a pastry chef at the Biltmore for five years. At times, the couple seems as much vaudevillians as chefs; Hutchings even joked of cooking classes they’ve been doing recently as a pair at Roblar Winery as “working off-Broadway so we have our shtick down for the cruise.” At one point, this rapid-fire exchange occurs: Dahl, “He’s very sloppy.” Hutchings, “I think of it as cooking with abandon.” Dahl, “He’s used to people cleaning up after him.” Hutchings, “I expect people to.”
Seriously, the couple does expect some challenges, but relishes them. “You adapt, you work with your mystery ingredients,” Hutchings asserted. He then pointed to Dahl and said, “You give that gal butter, eggs, flour, sugar, and chocolate, and you’ve got 50 desserts.” As for what to pack for a week of cooking aboard a ship, the cruise line will give the pair a list of what will be provided. Which is a good thing, for, as Hutchings pointed out, “You can’t bring your knives on the plane in these tenuous times. It’s not like the big bag I brought to Europe when I was an apprentice. I’d be in Gitmo now.”
There’s an unusual added twist to this cruise. “We’ve paired up with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History,” Hutchings said, “and with each ticket sold, they get a percentage. It becomes a very positive thing—a great cruise, it benefits a charity, and we get one hell of a vacation.” Not only are Hutchings and Dahl interested in natural history (he has a famous natural historian in his family line even), and not only do they appreciate the broad net the museum casts with events like the series the Natural History of Food, but they also have a very personal connection to the museum since it’s where they got married.
“Both Chef Hutchings and Chef Dahl are masterful artisans, and we are fortunate to be able to have their food enjoyed by staff and visitors,” stated the museum’s Special Events Coordinator Meredith Moore in a press release. “The fact that they appreciate the museum, and show it with a donation, is the cherry on top.”
The cherry on top for Dahl is ending the cruise in what Hutchings billed as “her favorite city in the whole world, Venice.” “It’s like New Orleans—so different from anything else,” Dahl said. “There’s nothing modern about it, let’s put it that way. It’s lost in time.” That appreciation for enduring values lines up with Hutchings’s take on the couple’s culinary approach: “We’re the old-school, kind of like dinosaurs. It’s all about great ingredients, great technique, great flavor. Too many of the young chefs ignore the classics.”
Dine, wine, and delight around Italy’s boot on an exclusive Culinary & Wine Cruise with Chefs Michael Hutchings and Christine Dahl (Rome-Venice, May 29-June 5). Call Discovery Cruises International at (800) 213-7777, or visit cruisebargains.com.