Mediterranean Summer by David Shalleck with Erol Munuz
Broadway Books (2007)
332 pages, with recipes
Here in the northern hemisphere, summer is waning; days are getting shorter and temperatures are dropping. It is the time for cozy indoor pursuits like reading and cooking. For your fall reading list, here is a book that will appeal whether you are looking for inspiration for that trip to the sunny Mediterranean, would enjoy a riveting insider’s account of life aboard a luxury sailing yacht, or would like to read a food-centric travelogue of France’s Côte d’Azur and Italy’s Costa Bella.
The story begins with author David Shalleck’s struggle to find his place in the world of haute cuisine. Though he had worked in some excellent restaurants and recently been given the nod for a sous chef position, he could not shake the feeling that this new job, which was more administrative than culinary, was not right for him. By a stroke of good luck — though at the time it seemed a disaster — he was led to where the necessary refinement and testing of his chef skills would occur. He began four years of internships in Italy, at restaurants and wineries where the best examples of regional cooking could be found. During this time he polished his culinary chops and became fluent in Italian, which was a very good thing when his next opportunity — the heart of this story — came along.
Enter La Signora and Il Dottore (the titles by which the hired help are required to refer to them), the wealthy and socially prominent Italian owners of the 130+ foot classic sailing yacht, Serenity. David was hired to be the chef by the imperious Signora. It was not clear if he was chosen because he was now very skilled in local Italian cuisines and fluent in Italian or because la Signora’s difficult personality had limited her home-grown options.
Up for the challenge, David accepted the position and began the job of procuring and producing food for all meals on board, from the crew’s daily meals to intimate family meals. He satisfied whatever whim the owners’ and their adult children wished. Their entertaining ranged from occasional business luncheons to full-out extravaganzas for upwards of 100 attendees.
He was considered a full-fledged member of the crew and was expected to share in those responsibilities, giving credence to the generally accepted notion that the cook works the hardest of all the crew. He struggled with the challenges of limited storage and tight cooking accommodations, but was expected to create delicious and always-fresh food. He improvised and overcame obstacles that the stereotypical temperamental chef would not likely weather.
David’s calm and hardworking attitude earned the respect of his crew mates who delighted in introducing the newbie to some less well-known but choice Mediterranean spots for R&R. Meanwhile, his crack-of-dawn forays into the (in)famous ports of the French and Italian Riviera served as a guide to restaurants and shops where the best local foods can be obtained — a nice bonus for the reader who hopes to visit these spots.
There remained, for David, the quest to succeed at all the elements of being the executive chef that eluded him in the United States. Would he have what it takes? Would La Signora be impressed? There are several other areas of tension in the story which keep you guessing, too: the challenges of maintaining a positive environment on board while living in close quarters, the rivalries and jealousies created by the “Upstairs, Downstairs” scenario, the balancing of downtime (shore leave!) with the formal, highly visible service roles all the crew must perform while the owners are aboard. Not only do David and the other crew members face those pressures, but they must prepare for the very competitive yacht races at the end of the season where these floating villas vie for a coveted trophy (coveted especially by the captain and owners) as recognition of their ship’s superior design and the sailing prowess of their crew (which of course must participate in regular practice drills). One realizes that rather than an idyllic sail plying the sunny, sexy Mediterranean, this is very demanding work, not glamorous at all, most of the time.
But this is primarily a story about food and the passion and perfectionism that drives the very best chefs. La Signora’s choice of David was a good one because he understood her vision of the kind of food she wanted served and he had the skill and stamina to deliver it to her exacting standards.
It should be mentioned that though this is about an extremely wealthy couple, this is not a tale of wretched excess. Other than the expectation that foie gras would be available for La Signora, the owners’ menus tended toward simple fresh food. Though La Signora was dictating Il Dottore’s diet, there were a couple of comical scenes relating to his rebelling, where he would appear seeking a midnight snack, dropping his owner persona, as he relaxed below decks with the crew (though the crew never quite got used to it!).
More than two dozen recipes are woven throughout the telling to highlight regional ingredients, techniques, or to introduce a recipe from a renowned chef or restaurant.
An hors d’oeuvre recipe from Albergo del Sole, in Maleo, Italy, where David served one of his internships, is tuna mousse. It became a favorite of La Signora.
A Note from the Reviewer:
While on the island of Bermuda, in the western Atlantic, I’ve often enjoyed visiting International Imports Ltd., aka The Chef’s Store, a kitchen supply store owned by Reeve and Sheena Trott on Par-la-Ville Road in the port city of Hamilton. (Their cookbook selection from the UK is delightful!) Having just read Mediterranean Summer, I was interested to return there to talk to Bernard Stemphet, the affable man who is most often behind the counter. Bernard, who began his culinary career as a teen in Besançon France, came to Bermuda to work and shortly thereafter became the executive pastry chef of one of the largest hotels in Bermuda from 1979 to 1999. He has worked at the shop in recent years to keep active, and also occasionally teaches cooking classes in classic French cuisine in the shop’s demonstration kitchen.
I asked what he’d experienced relative to the needs of the chefs of the luxury yachts that moor in Hamilton. He said while he occasionally sees chefs from the yachts and can offer them just about anything they would need, they probably have gotten most of their kitchen supplies in New York or a similar urban center. He occasionally assists them when an appliance needs service, whether providing something from the shop’s parts inventory or arranging to receive a delivery. He’s also been known to take it upon himself to deal with a problem device — trouble-shooting and tinkering, with a decent success rate — providing good old customer service, something appreciated by any busy professional chef on land or sea.
First published October 2014