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Cruise Confidential: Behind the Scenes with Uniworld’s Culinary Director

Uniworld’s distinctive luxury ships ply the legendary rivers of Europe. Along the way, it’s the job of culinary director Gerard van Helvoort to keep passengers well fed, with dishes as authentic and inspiring as the places they will visit. It’s no small feat! Find out how he keeps menus fresh, where he sources ingredients, and what his typical workday is like onboard a Uniworld river cruise.

What spurred you to become a chef for cruise lines?
It was a logical move since I always wanted to travel! After working in the bakery and pastry shop of my granddad, I completed a chef apprenticeship in the Netherlands, followed by work experience in the Dutch West Indies, southern France, the UK, and Spain until 1995 when I applied for a sous chef position at Holland America Line. I’ll never forget standing on the dock in Fort Lauderdale next to the old SS Statendan. It’s been full speed ahead ever since. I was promoted to second executive chef, then executive chef, and worked for several cruise lines, including Windstar. I started as senior corporate chef at Uniworld three years ago and was promoted to culinary director in 2015.

How do you plan the menus for Uniworld?
We have meetings throughout the year in which I recommend specific dishes to the corporate and pastry chefs to keep the menu cycles updated. These cycles are created with consideration for the local, seasonal, and specific dishes of each town on a given itinerary to give our guests the best culinary experience possible day after day. Some of my favorite Uniworld recipes include potted eggs with fried bread, Austrian rostbraten (thinly sliced sirloin steak), and terrine of foie gras and prune religieuse.

Where do you source the ingredients?
The sourcing of ingredients is an ongoing job. Every time I’m on a Uniworld ship, I consider where we can improve and what is locally available. I try to get the product onboard either by local supplier or through our main supplier depending on price, uniqueness of the product, and available delivery times.

What are some of the challenges of preparing food for cruises?
One of the main challenges is the changing guest demographics. We’re now seeing more and more Asian and South American guests on our ships, which calls for different cooking skills to deliver the best possible experience. Also, cooking large volumes while still serving five-star food can be challenging, which is why it’s so important to train the onboard teams before the season starts.

What is a typical day like for you? 
When onboard, I start at 7am by checking the breakfast buffet. I chat with the executive chef about what’s happening that day and join the managers’ meeting to point out observations from the previous day. I review my emails and check lunch preparations and the buffet set-up. After lunch, the teams normally have a break during which I do my phone calls to colleagues, suppliers, and Uniworld’s Rheinfelden office, and take a break myself. Then it’s on to dinner preparation, crew food, and dinner service, and my day ends at 9:30pm. Back at the office, I can catch up on paperwork and outstanding tasks. 

Do you interact with cruise passengers and, if so, how?
Yes! It’s the best feedback I can get; often guests do not write down everything they would like or miss. By talking to them when onboard, either when they visit the restaurant or on the Sun Deck during the sailing hours, I hear mostly compliments, which is nice. But the critical feedback when a guest is not happy or has a suggestion is more valuable to me. Usually we can react fairly quickly and implement changes. 

How have your own travels influenced your cooking?
Absolutely, as a chef you always notice new things when you travel, which you try to implement into your dishes and menus. By staying curious and open minded for new trends and techniques you never stop learning in this trade.

 If you could only eat one cuisine for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
Well, among Uniworld offerings, I’d choose the French cuisine offered onboard our cruise on the Seine. In 2017, our newest ship S.S. Joie de Vivre will sail this seven-day roundtrip route from Paris. It features local French specialties, of course, as well as a new layout that includes a chef’s table where guests can enjoy the preparation process.