“Not many people know this, but Humphrey Bogart never said the line ‘Play it again, Sam.’ He said, ‘You played it for her, you can play it for me,’ and Sam acquiesced.”
That’s Harry talking, the piano player aboard the Seabourn Odyssey, a sleek iron-and-teak-railed ship heading to old-school Mediterranean ports like Barcelona and Tangier before moving into the Canary Islands, up to Lisbon, then across the Atlantic to dock in Fort Lauderdale.
Like Bogart in Casablanca, I’d asked for “As Time Goes By,” only because our ship was off to the real Casablanca in four days. I was wearing a tux and, like Bogart, sifting a single-malt Scotch as we shoved off in the rain, the vanishing Barcelona skyline flickering in the distance.
Although I’d never been on a cruise before, the idea of taking one always had allure, thanks to my late mother. She’d kept a diary of a trip in the early ’50s when she crossed the Atlantic from New York to study in Paris, where I now live.
Her pages included swarthy counts from Montenegro and an up-and-coming writer who had the malediction of sharing the same last name as Ernest Hemingway. “In a way I pity Russell Hemingway,” my mother wrote. “Something tells me a famous writing career is not in his cards.” There were lavish dinners and dances, not to mention a tiger housed below and a party one night to, yes, name the tiger.
I realize now that the richness captured in my mother’s pages, and the richness I found aboard the Odyssey, were not just a result of the sumptuous surroundings. The feeling had to do with that ability to somehow dilate time. My older fellow passengers—I’m in my 40s, and let’s just say most of them had a few years on me—already knew this. I’d watch them in tasteful pairs laughing at the bar, or huddled around Kindles in the lounge, or fast-walking around the deck with trekking poles in those Patagonia fleece vests.
They all seemed well aware that the wondrous part of travel is going there, not getting there, and that this sort of trip is all the more enjoyable when the food is up to snuff. Hence the partnership that sprung up between the three-star Michelin chef Thomas Keller and Seabourn. It offers lucky passengers like me a culinary experience you don’t usually associate with cruise lines.
Before my trip I wondered, How gourmet could a kitchen really be when it’s serving hundreds of people on open water? Not very much, the Seabourn brass believes, which is why Keller’s dishes served on the Odyssey are prepared for just 50 to 60 people each night, depending on ingredients and demand.
Each day passengers receive a culinary briefing detailing what will be available at the four establishments on board. One or more almost always serves Keller meals, whether it be at The Patio or the main restaurant (The Restaurant, as it’s called) or The Colonnade—an elegant indoor/outdoor space. Seabourn’s plan is eventually to equip each of its ships with a new spot called The Grill by Thomas Keller; the first recently opened on another Seabourn boat, the Quest.
Considering there were roughly 430 passengers with me, it’s safe to say not everyone went “full Keller” each night. In fact, some said they preferred head chef Tomasz Borucki’s fare, focused on classics like Caesar salad and rosemary roasted chicken breasts. To crank it all out, Borucki, a native of Poland who’s spent ten years doing this, oversees a galley that employs 50 cooks, some of whom specialize in making Keller dishes the Keller way. “We’re very strict, and there’s lots of oversight with the Keller dishes,” Borucki told me. “Pictures are sent back to his team on land to guarantee everything’s being served correctly.”
His secret to cooking at such a high level on the water? Good sea legs, quality product and manpower, not to mention a habit of watching the time. “On a boat, you’re always against the clock—you have to know what’s ahead.”
I didn’t follow Chef Borucki’s advice; once on board, I found myself in a sort of dreamlike limbo, drifting between conversations and moments and profound sleep as the Odyssey slowly advanced.
I honestly can’t remember what night it was that I danced with an older couple to Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” with my white bucks and blue blazer, wondering what those watching me were wondering. Is he a cashed-out social media billionaire? Is he their son? Is he a gigolo?
Nor do I recall where it was on the boat that a warm couple from California made me gasp with laughter when they confided that they were spending their retirement “skiing.”
“Waterskiing?” I asked.
“No, John, Skiing—as in Spending Our Kids’ Inheritance,” at which point we all raised our glasses of Champagne, cackling at their offspring’s lousy future.
I do know that Thursday I’d gone late into the night with my new best friend, Cookie, a fellow native from Washington, D.C., high-fiving over Remy Martins as our Redskins battled the Cowboys on TV. Because of that, I spent Friday morning on the sundeck’s chaise lounges, a Bloody Mary at the ready, wrapped in a flannel blanket like some 1920’s TB patient.
The only way to tether these moments together was to recall the various meals I enjoyed. Their descriptions scribbled inside my notebook triggered with Proustian recall tastes that came flooding back.
There was the dinner on my first night, which I took as an homage to Thomas Keller’s American childhood. The hickory smoked barbecue ribs and baked beans, the braised spinach and the corn pone were served on wooden platters, family-style, giving everything a relaxed spirit amid the swanky surroundings. (Actually, none of the Keller meals were ever that fancy-pants, which was a relief.) The dessert, a Champagne and Granny Smith apple trifle, was not to be trifled with. Once I dug through the layers of vanilla custard, I hit pay dirt with the Champagne bubbling up through the sponge.
Later in the week I tried Keller’s haute dog, a pork sausage in a potato onion bun served with chowchow relish (blam!), sauerkraut, and french fries, which Keller named the Yountwurst—a wink to Yountville, California, home of his restaurant The French Laundry. I scarfed that during my chaise lounge recuperation; my neighbor George had assured me that it “would help me grow my claws back.”
And then there was the breakfast I’d ordered up to my room one day when I decided to play hooky—a serviceable eggs Benedict with a heavy silver pot of coffee. The lazy morning in question was a way to take advantage of my sun-drenched balcony facing Africa. It was separated by a glass door to my suite, a one-bedroom couch setup that’s not huge—about 300 square feet—but seems larger because it’s all smartly thought-out. Oh, and the room featured my own personalized stationery and envelopes, and I’m always a sucker for that stuff.
If only they’d delivered handwritten invitations for my farewell dinner, which was held in the ship’s grand ballroom. There I dined on foie gras with French country bread, followed by a lobster-and-apple-smoked lardon stew cooked in a vin rouge jus with carrots, King Richard leeks, and forest mushrooms. Keller’s lobster lardon stew proved to be a solid right-left/terre-mer combination, so during this dish, I did an odd thing: Instead of sticking with white Burgundy the entire way, I went with red Zinfandel when knocking back the bits of bacon. Was this ambidextrous double-fisting proper? Probably not, but I didn’t care anymore. I had a tux. I knew the captain by now. I could do no wrong. And like that it was over.
The next morning I found myself heading down the gangway in Tangier to catch a plane back for a dinner my Parisian-American friends were hosting. My only regret was that I didn’t have more time to explore the Moroccan city. Once I explained this to my elderly driver, Mohamed, he quickly pulled a U-turn and sped to the famous medina, where I hastily bought orange blossom perfume for my wife. Then Mohamed treated me to a mint tea and a nonchalant “We have time, sir, don’t worry.”
Before I knew it we were at the airport, Mohamed making me promise to return again, saying he’d greet me at the port when my ship came in. I told him he could count on it, sticking to the role I’d adopted since the beginning of this slow-boat adventure. I bid my friend adieu, letting him know that this chance meeting of ours was not the end but simply “the start of a beautiful friendship.”
And yes. Humphrey Bogart really did say that line.