On Celebrity’s ‘Top Chef’ cruise, food and fun are on the menu


The pool and lounging area onboard the Celebrity Constellation during the “Top Chef: The Cruise.” (Justin Segura/NBC Universal)
September 21, 2013

I’m standing on the deck of the Celebrity Constellation, somewhere between Key West, Fla., and Cozumel, Mexico, taking iPhone photos of a group getting ready to go for a jog around the deck, when a voice in my left ear says, “Go on! Do it!”

Excuse me? I turn to see a spitfire of a woman named Rose, dressed in neon green and pink running gear, grinning at me and pointing at the leader of the joggers. “Go ahead, go up there,” she says. “I’ll take your picture with him!”

Food- and TV-related cruise options

The object of our attention is a chef, Richard Blais, who wouldn’t be drawing such notice except for the fact that he won Season 8 of the Bravo TV show “Top Chef,” of which this entire ship is something of a spinoff. Yes, this is “Top Chef: The Cruise.”

I decline Rose’s offer, but she’s not having it. “No! Go! That’s what you’re here for!” I demur again. She insists again. “Look, no one back home will believe you if you don’t have a picture!”

Fearing that her pushing might get physical, I tell her that I’m on this cruise as a journalist, that I’ve met Blais a few times and that I’m more interested in hearing why she’s here than in acting on any fanboy tendencies of my own. Finally, she relents.

But Rose’s vehemence makes it clear how intensely she feels about Blais — and the show. And it’s reactions like hers that explain why “Top Chef: The Cruise” drew a sold-out crowd for its voyage from Miami to Cozumel and back in the spring. Rose and her fellow fans jumped at the chance to get up close and personal with some of their favorite reality-show stars — or at least as up close and personal as you can get when 2,000 people are trying to do the same thing.

It makes a lot of sense: Cruise ships are fishbowls anyway, floating hotels that devotees love and critics hate for some of the same reasons. (Pro: You don’t have to leave the boat! Con: You can’t leave the boat!) So you may as well bide your time with others who share at least one of your interests. Standing in line for dinner or a safety drill or a shore excursion, all you have to do to strike up a conversation is ask, “Which season was your favorite?”

“I was all about Seasons 7, 8 and 9,” Rose says when I ask her. “Season 10? Well, not so much.”

It turns out that Rose and her husband “are not very into cruises,” she confesses. “But as soon as we saw it on TV, I bought it right away. I didn’t even hesitate.” And therein lies the other marketing genius of themed cruises: They draw people who are more into the theme than into cruising, getting people onto the boat who otherwise would never be there.

Bonding with Blais

But what does jogging have to do with “Top Chef,” you wonder? Blais’s run was part of the cruise’s attempt to put the cheftestants in situations where they could display “hidden talents” and bond with passengers over something that doesn’t involve cooking. (Though there was plenty of that, too.)

Among other things, that means that Blais takes a group for a jog, Washington chef Spike Mendelsohn (Seasons 4 and 8) challenges passengers to Ping-Pong, Mike Isabella (Seasons 6 and 8) holds court at a poker table, Tiffany Derry (Seasons 7 and 8) plays beach volleyball after a cooking demo in Cozumel, and head judge Tom Colicchio straps on his guitar and plays a bluesy set with his favorite band.

For Blais, the run gives him the chance to explain how — and why — he lost 30 pounds between his first go-round on the show (he was runner-up on Season 4) and his second.

“We see ourselves on TV and we think, ‘Wow, I need to run,’ ” he tells the 50 or so people who have gathered around him. “You hear that TV adds 10 or 20 pounds, but it really just reveals the truth.”

More important, he says, he wanted to do more than just memorize recipes for “All-Stars,” the Season 8 show he won; he wanted to train physically, because the second time, he understood just how demanding the process would be. “Try running through your Whole Foods at home sometime,” he says, referring to a common scene on the show when the contestants rush to buy ingredients. “The worst part would be, I’m in my chef’s jacket so people are like, ‘Can you tell me where to find garbanzo beans?’ I’m like, ‘Aisle 17, and by the way I’m a little busy right now.’ ”

It’s just such behind-the-scenes stuff that these cruisers signed up to hear, and they eat it up. And then off they go, following as Blais sets a relatively leisurely pace. A few laps around, everybody is staying respectfully behind him, so he calls out with a smile, “Look at me! I’m winning!” Again.

Smile for the camera

“I would have come on the cruise just for Tom,” says Renee, a 50-something woman from Tulsa traveling solo. Or rather, for her daughter, who seems to think that she might be able to play matchmaker. “Every time she sees Tom on the show she’s like, ‘Mom, Tom Colicchio is so cute.’ ”

We’re in line with hundreds of other passengers for our assigned-slot photo session in a top-floor lounge. A group of cheftestants and judges, including Colicchio and Gail Simmons (a judge from Food & Wine magazine), is posing for photo after photo as various groups of eight passengers line up behind them.

There’s almost zero interaction with the chefs as my group gets brought around. They’re facing away from us, and I hear the grumbles from disappointed passengers as the cattle-call reality becomes clear. Why pay to come on the boat and schmooze with people who won’t even pretend to schmooze back? As if they can read the group’s mind, two of the friendliest cheftestants of all — Angelo Sosa (Seasons 7 and 8) and Fabio Viviani (Seasons 5 and 8) — turn around, grin and start high-fiving each of us as we line up. Smiles break out, everyone faces forward again, and the cameras flash.

Then we’re herded out, and the next eight are herded in to take our place.

Chaos on the cruise

Maybe they should have called this cruise “Top Chef: Unedited.”

Every night there’s a live cooking competition in the ship’s auditorium, modeled after one of the show’s “Quickfires” (typically a 10-to-20-minute challenge in which the cheftestants have to make a dish with, say, vending machine food). But unlike on the show, which is produced by the company Magical Elves, here there’s a live commentator and a single cameraman trying to help the audience make sense of all the action — with varying degrees of success.

On Day One, for instance, the Quickfire involves the chefs pairing up with audience members for “team sandwich,” in which one chef and one civilian pulled from the audience tie themselves into a single apron and each use just one hand to put together a sandwich.

It’s before dinner, and while the chefs seem to have their wits about them, the audience members who help seem to be pretty tipsy, if not out-and-out drunk. (Judging from conversations with passengers, the cruise’s “alcohol package” was a big seller.) The action is disjointed, the jokes are punctuated by cruise humor (“We have to tell you that whoever loses will be thrown overboard,” says Hubert Keller, a “Top Chef Masters”alum), and at some point it degenerates into chaos that would have ended up on the cutting-room floor if this had been television.

Mendelsohn starts throwing herbs into the audience. The chefs all start throwing cheese at one another. When one audience member, who’s helping Keller judge the dishes, is asked what she thinks, there’s a little problem you wouldn’t see on TV: Her mouth is full right when all eyes turn to her, so she covers it politely, and the seconds tick by until an audience member screams out, “Swallow!”

It’s enough to make you wish for a magical elf.

At dinner that night, the women at my table have a word for what we’ve witnessed onstage: A Slowfire. “They didn’t need 20 minutes just to make a sandwich,” says Shoshana, who’s on the cruise with her friend Maura. “Not even with one hand.”

The two are from Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz., and they bought their tickets on impulse. “I’m kind of ‘Top Chef’-crazy,” Shoshana says. But she has a complaint about the cruise: no single guys. “Lots of girlfriends, gay couples and straight couples where the guy looks like he was dragged onto the boat,” she says.

(Clearly she hasn’t met Kenny, of Kenny and Lisa, who sat next to me in the auditorium. Kenny is possibly even more into this whole thing than his wife. “Everybody’s here for the same reason,” he tells me. “To hook up with Gail.” At which he and his wife cackle — and order another round of drinks.)

Details, details

Remember the classic “Saturday Night Live” sketch from the 1980s in which William Shatner plays himself at a “Star Trek” convention? The questions from geeked-out Trekkers get so picayune that he eventually explodes with his “Get a life! It was just a show!” speech.

Well, it starts to feel a bit like that at times on “Top Chef: The Cruise.” Take the Q&A session with Colicchio and several of the contestants, where passengers ask things like, “When that food accidentally got left out of the fridge and had to get thrown out at the Nationals game, what happened to it? We never knew how that ended up affecting the challenge.”

Colicchio’s Shatneresque response? “Come on, man, that was like three years ago!” A producer adds: “The team had the opportunity to remake their bacon.” Phew. The world can breathe a collective sigh of relief now that this crucial mystery has been solved.

Other exchanges are a little more enlightening. “What if there’s a tie?” one passenger asks. “That’s why I’m the head judge,” Colicchio responds. And still others, not so much. When one passenger asks what the panel’s favorite unseen moments were, Viviani cries out in his thick Italian accent, “I’ve got a good one!” And he tells a rambling, barely intelligible tale of drinking vodka and stuffing one of his competitors into a laundry bag and hanging him from a second-floor landing. Brooke Williamson (Season 10) tells of games in the “stew room,” where the contestants, waiting for hours while the judges deliberated, concocted 20-second spoofs of Quickfire challenges.

Then, of course, there are those questions that really aren’t. One passenger practically assaults the microphone and screams out, “I want to say hey to all the Texas people in the house! Texasss!!!” Then he says to Colicchio, who is wearing shades, “Tom, the ladies love your eyes. Show us your eyes!” Williamson quips, “Did you take both of those shots they gave you?” The answer is fairly obvious.

One young woman, who clearly hasn’t been on many cruises, asks, “How do you feel about how your dishes are coming across here onboard? Some are not so, well . . . ”

Tim Love (Season 1, “Top Chef Masters”) fires back: “How many times have you made 1,000 plates before? I’d like to congratulate the ship’s chefs on a job well done.”

So what about the food onboard? Every meal features recipes by the show’s chefs in addition to the usual menu. The consensus among passengers: By and large, the additions are a better bet than the regular dishes, at least at the default, no-extra-charge restaurant, San Marco. A tomato soup with curried whipped cream by Sosais lively and interesting, while the ship’s standard cream of wild forest mushroom soup is, well, standard.

And the winner is — “Top Chef”!

Timing and taste buds

At a cooking demo one night, Colicchio and Simmons mix flirtatious banter (Simmons: “I like a spicy cocktail”; Colicchio: “I’ve heard that about you”) with some honest-to-goodness helpful cooking tips. The best way to chop ginger? Colicchio demonstrates: Peel it with a teaspoon, cut it into medallions, smash each with the side of a knife, and then mince away.

When someone calls out a question about timing, Simmons makes a pitch for forgetting about that: “The key to cooking well is to pay attention,” she says. “Feel it out as you go and be willing to make adjustments along the way. Times aren’t as important as what you see and smell.”

But enough cooking. Let’s ask more questions about “Top Chef,” shall we?

Where’s the next season? Colicchio can’t say (since the cruise took place, it’s been announced: New Orleans, premiering Oct. 2). Best chefs ever on the show? Colicchio praises a lot of them but comes down to Austin’s Paul Qui, winner of Season 9.

The hardest season to judge? Season 3, the two agree. The finale judging lasted through the night as the judges debated the difference between a meal by Dale Levitski that had higher highs and lower lows and the one by eventual winner Hung Huynh that was more consistent. “These are the kinds of conversations we labor over,” Colicchio says, “because we decided early on that because you can’t taste on TV, we have to talk.”

Simmons adds: “Until we get Smell-o-Vision, we are the only taste buds you guys have.”

And for the finale . . .

The last night on board, more passengers — and chefs — seem to stay up later than usual. Maybe it’s just me, but we all seem to want to wring out as much interaction with the celebs as we can before we go back to our own non-televised reality. We get a chance to focus completely on the chefs’ food during a taste-around on deck, where each chef stands at a station serving a little bite: brioche with thyme and rosemary from Qui, tostones with garlic oil and bay leaf salt from Sosa, quinoa-crusted sweet, sour and spicy chicken wings from Casey Thompson (Season 3).

One passenger near me takes one bite of the last and says, “I know it’s not a competition, but these are the best.” I interject, “It’s always a competition,” which prompts Thompson to turn to me and say, “Right!”

As Keller starts spinning records for a sendoff dance party in the grand foyer, I catch Sosa in the martini bar, where he’s been making drinks for passengers off and on. I’ve met him before, including when I was part of the on-camera action during a few scenes of the Washington season a few years ago, and will admit that of all the chefs, he may be the one who turns me from journalist to fanboy. I ask him to show me the very involved handshake I keep seeing him and Isabella do.

“Sure,” he says. “But first you have to focus.” He reaches over and unbuttons a couple of buttons on my shirt — to match his own devil-may-care style, of course — and we go through it a few times. (It involves a slap, a bump, a “moustache” and two whistles. Very complicated.)

As the music blares and Keller pumps his fist in the air, I hear Shoshana, the “Top Chef”-crazy Arizona woman, say, “Want me to take your picture?” I hand her my phone. Sosa and I raise our glasses, and the flash goes off.

Don’t believe me? Well, I could show you that shot — but, really, you just had to be there.

by Joe Yonan

I’m standing on the deck of the Celebrity Constellation, somewhere between Key West, Fla., and Cozumel, Mexico, taking iPhone photos of a group getting ready to go for a jog around the deck, when a voice in my left ear says, “Go on! Do it!”

Excuse me? I turn to see a spitfire of a woman named Rose, dressed in neon green and pink running gear, grinning at me and pointing at the leader of the joggers. “Go ahead, go up there,” she says. “I’ll take your picture with him!”

Food- and TV-related cruise options

The object of our attention is a chef, Richard Blais, who wouldn’t be drawing such notice except for the fact that he won Season 8 of the Bravo TV show “Top Chef,” of which this entire ship is something of a spinoff. Yes, this is “Top Chef: The Cruise.”

I decline Rose’s offer, but she’s not having it. “No! Go! That’s what you’re here for!” I demur again. She insists again. “Look, no one back home will believe you if you don’t have a picture!”

Fearing that her pushing might get physical, I tell her that I’m on this cruise as a journalist, that I’ve met Blais a few times and that I’m more interested in hearing why she’s here than in acting on any fanboy tendencies of my own. Finally, she relents.

But Rose’s vehemence makes it clear how intensely she feels about Blais — and the show. And it’s reactions like hers that explain why “Top Chef: The Cruise” drew a sold-out crowd for its voyage from Miami to Cozumel and back in the spring. Rose and her fellow fans jumped at the chance to get up close and personal with some of their favorite reality-show stars — or at least as up close and personal as you can get when 2,000 people are trying to do the same thing.

It makes a lot of sense: Cruise ships are fishbowls anyway, floating hotels that devotees love and critics hate for some of the same reasons. (Pro: You don’t have to leave the boat! Con: You can’t leave the boat!) So you may as well bide your time with others who share at least one of your interests. Standing in line for dinner or a safety drill or a shore excursion, all you have to do to strike up a conversation is ask, “Which season was your favorite?”

“I was all about Seasons 7, 8 and 9,” Rose says when I ask her. “Season 10? Well, not so much.”

It turns out that Rose and her husband “are not very into cruises,” she confesses. “But as soon as we saw it on TV, I bought it right away. I didn’t even hesitate.” And therein lies the other marketing genius of themed cruises: They draw people who are more into the theme than into cruising, getting people onto the boat who otherwise would never be there.

Bonding with Blais

But what does jogging have to do with “Top Chef,” you wonder? Blais’s run was part of the cruise’s attempt to put the cheftestants in situations where they could display “hidden talents” and bond with passengers over something that doesn’t involve cooking. (Though there was plenty of that, too.)

Among other things, that means that Blais takes a group for a jog, Washington chef Spike Mendelsohn (Seasons 4 and 8) challenges passengers to Ping-Pong, Mike Isabella (Seasons 6 and 8) holds court at a poker table, Tiffany Derry (Seasons 7 and 8) plays beach volleyball after a cooking demo in Cozumel, and head judge Tom Colicchio straps on his guitar and plays a bluesy set with his favorite band.

For Blais, the run gives him the chance to explain how — and why — he lost 30 pounds between his first go-round on the show (he was runner-up on Season 4) and his second.

“We see ourselves on TV and we think, ‘Wow, I need to run,’ ” he tells the 50 or so people who have gathered around him. “You hear that TV adds 10 or 20 pounds, but it really just reveals the truth.”

More important, he says, he wanted to do more than just memorize recipes for “All-Stars,” the Season 8 show he won; he wanted to train physically, because the second time, he understood just how demanding the process would be. “Try running through your Whole Foods at home sometime,” he says, referring to a common scene on the show when the contestants rush to buy ingredients. “The worst part would be, I’m in my chef’s jacket so people are like, ‘Can you tell me where to find garbanzo beans?’ I’m like, ‘Aisle 17, and by the way I’m a little busy right now.’ ”

It’s just such behind-the-scenes stuff that these cruisers signed up to hear, and they eat it up. And then off they go, following as Blais sets a relatively leisurely pace. A few laps around, everybody is staying respectfully behind him, so he calls out with a smile, “Look at me! I’m winning!” Again.

Smile for the camera

“I would have come on the cruise just for Tom,” says Renee, a 50-something woman from Tulsa traveling solo. Or rather, for her daughter, who seems to think that she might be able to play matchmaker. “Every time she sees Tom on the show she’s like, ‘Mom, Tom Colicchio is so cute.’ ”

We’re in line with hundreds of other passengers for our assigned-slot photo session in a top-floor lounge. A group of cheftestants and judges, including Colicchio and Gail Simmons (a judge from Food & Wine magazine), is posing for photo after photo as various groups of eight passengers line up behind them.

There’s almost zero interaction with the chefs as my group gets brought around. They’re facing away from us, and I hear the grumbles from disappointed passengers as the cattle-call reality becomes clear. Why pay to come on the boat and schmooze with people who won’t even pretend to schmooze back? As if they can read the group’s mind, two of the friendliest cheftestants of all — Angelo Sosa (Seasons 7 and 8) and Fabio Viviani (Seasons 5 and 8) — turn around, grin and start high-fiving each of us as we line up. Smiles break out, everyone faces forward again, and the cameras flash.

Then we’re herded out, and the next eight are herded in to take our place.

Chaos on the cruise

Maybe they should have called this cruise “Top Chef: Unedited.”

Every night there’s a live cooking competition in the ship’s auditorium, modeled after one of the show’s “Quickfires” (typically a 10-to-20-minute challenge in which the cheftestants have to make a dish with, say, vending machine food). But unlike on the show, which is produced by the company Magical Elves, here there’s a live commentator and a single cameraman trying to help the audience make sense of all the action — with varying degrees of success.

On Day One, for instance, the Quickfire involves the chefs pairing up with audience members for “team sandwich,” in which one chef and one civilian pulled from the audience tie themselves into a single apron and each use just one hand to put together a sandwich.

It’s before dinner, and while the chefs seem to have their wits about them, the audience members who help seem to be pretty tipsy, if not out-and-out drunk. (Judging from conversations with passengers, the cruise’s “alcohol package” was a big seller.) The action is disjointed, the jokes are punctuated by cruise humor (“We have to tell you that whoever loses will be thrown overboard,” says Hubert Keller, a “Top Chef Masters”alum), and at some point it degenerates into chaos that would have ended up on the cutting-room floor if this had been television.

Mendelsohn starts throwing herbs into the audience. The chefs all start throwing cheese at one another. When one audience member, who’s helping Keller judge the dishes, is asked what she thinks, there’s a little problem you wouldn’t see on TV: Her mouth is full right when all eyes turn to her, so she covers it politely, and the seconds tick by until an audience member screams out, “Swallow!”

It’s enough to make you wish for a magical elf.

At dinner that night, the women at my table have a word for what we’ve witnessed onstage: A Slowfire. “They didn’t need 20 minutes just to make a sandwich,” says Shoshana, who’s on the cruise with her friend Maura. “Not even with one hand.”

The two are from Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz., and they bought their tickets on impulse. “I’m kind of ‘Top Chef’-crazy,” Shoshana says. But she has a complaint about the cruise: no single guys. “Lots of girlfriends, gay couples and straight couples where the guy looks like he was dragged onto the boat,” she says.

(Clearly she hasn’t met Kenny, of Kenny and Lisa, who sat next to me in the auditorium. Kenny is possibly even more into this whole thing than his wife. “Everybody’s here for the same reason,” he tells me. “To hook up with Gail.” At which he and his wife cackle — and order another round of drinks.)

Details, details

Remember the classic “Saturday Night Live” sketch from the 1980s in which William Shatner plays himself at a “Star Trek” convention? The questions from geeked-out Trekkers get so picayune that he eventually explodes with his “Get a life! It was just a show!” speech.

Well, it starts to feel a bit like that at times on “Top Chef: The Cruise.” Take the Q&A session with Colicchio and several of the contestants, where passengers ask things like, “When that food accidentally got left out of the fridge and had to get thrown out at the Nationals game, what happened to it? We never knew how that ended up affecting the challenge.”

Colicchio’s Shatneresque response? “Come on, man, that was like three years ago!” A producer adds: “The team had the opportunity to remake their bacon.” Phew. The world can breathe a collective sigh of relief now that this crucial mystery has been solved.

Other exchanges are a little more enlightening. “What if there’s a tie?” one passenger asks. “That’s why I’m the head judge,” Colicchio responds. And still others, not so much. When one passenger asks what the panel’s favorite unseen moments were, Viviani cries out in his thick Italian accent, “I’ve got a good one!” And he tells a rambling, barely intelligible tale of drinking vodka and stuffing one of his competitors into a laundry bag and hanging him from a second-floor landing. Brooke Williamson (Season 10) tells of games in the “stew room,” where the contestants, waiting for hours while the judges deliberated, concocted 20-second spoofs of Quickfire challenges.

Then, of course, there are those questions that really aren’t. One passenger practically assaults the microphone and screams out, “I want to say hey to all the Texas people in the house! Texasss!!!” Then he says to Colicchio, who is wearing shades, “Tom, the ladies love your eyes. Show us your eyes!” Williamson quips, “Did you take both of those shots they gave you?” The answer is fairly obvious.

One young woman, who clearly hasn’t been on many cruises, asks, “How do you feel about how your dishes are coming across here onboard? Some are not so, well . . . ”

Tim Love (Season 1, “Top Chef Masters”) fires back: “How many times have you made 1,000 plates before? I’d like to congratulate the ship’s chefs on a job well done.”

So what about the food onboard? Every meal features recipes by the show’s chefs in addition to the usual menu. The consensus among passengers: By and large, the additions are a better bet than the regular dishes, at least at the default, no-extra-charge restaurant, San Marco. A tomato soup with curried whipped cream by Sosais lively and interesting, while the ship’s standard cream of wild forest mushroom soup is, well, standard.

And the winner is — “Top Chef”!

Timing and taste buds

At a cooking demo one night, Colicchio and Simmons mix flirtatious banter (Simmons: “I like a spicy cocktail”; Colicchio: “I’ve heard that about you”) with some honest-to-goodness helpful cooking tips. The best way to chop ginger? Colicchio demonstrates: Peel it with a teaspoon, cut it into medallions, smash each with the side of a knife, and then mince away.

When someone calls out a question about timing, Simmons makes a pitch for forgetting about that: “The key to cooking well is to pay attention,” she says. “Feel it out as you go and be willing to make adjustments along the way. Times aren’t as important as what you see and smell.”

But enough cooking. Let’s ask more questions about “Top Chef,” shall we?

Where’s the next season? Colicchio can’t say (since the cruise took place, it’s been announced: New Orleans, premiering Oct. 2). Best chefs ever on the show? Colicchio praises a lot of them but comes down to Austin’s Paul Qui, winner of Season 9.

The hardest season to judge? Season 3, the two agree. The finale judging lasted through the night as the judges debated the difference between a meal by Dale Levitski that had higher highs and lower lows and the one by eventual winner Hung Huynh that was more consistent. “These are the kinds of conversations we labor over,” Colicchio says, “because we decided early on that because you can’t taste on TV, we have to talk.”

Simmons adds: “Until we get Smell-o-Vision, we are the only taste buds you guys have.”

And for the finale . . .

The last night on board, more passengers — and chefs — seem to stay up later than usual. Maybe it’s just me, but we all seem to want to wring out as much interaction with the celebs as we can before we go back to our own non-televised reality. We get a chance to focus completely on the chefs’ food during a taste-around on deck, where each chef stands at a station serving a little bite: brioche with thyme and rosemary from Qui, tostones with garlic oil and bay leaf salt from Sosa, quinoa-crusted sweet, sour and spicy chicken wings from Casey Thompson (Season 3).

One passenger near me takes one bite of the last and says, “I know it’s not a competition, but these are the best.” I interject, “It’s always a competition,” which prompts Thompson to turn to me and say, “Right!”

As Keller starts spinning records for a sendoff dance party in the grand foyer, I catch Sosa in the martini bar, where he’s been making drinks for passengers off and on. I’ve met him before, including when I was part of the on-camera action during a few scenes of the Washington season a few years ago, and will admit that of all the chefs, he may be the one who turns me from journalist to fanboy. I ask him to show me the very involved handshake I keep seeing him and Isabella do.

“Sure,” he says. “But first you have to focus.” He reaches over and unbuttons a couple of buttons on my shirt — to match his own devil-may-care style, of course — and we go through it a few times. (It involves a slap, a bump, a “moustache” and two whistles. Very complicated.)

As the music blares and Keller pumps his fist in the air, I hear Shoshana, the “Top Chef”-crazy Arizona woman, say, “Want me to take your picture?” I hand her my phone. Sosa and I raise our glasses, and the flash goes off.

Don’t believe me? Well, I could show you that shot — but, really, you just had to be there.

by Joe Yonan

I’m standing on the deck of the Celebrity Constellation, somewhere between Key West, Fla., and Cozumel, Mexico, taking iPhone photos of a group getting ready to go for a jog around the deck, when a voice in my left ear says, “Go on! Do it!”

Excuse me? I turn to see a spitfire of a woman named Rose, dressed in neon green and pink running gear, grinning at me and pointing at the leader of the joggers. “Go ahead, go up there,” she says. “I’ll take your picture with him!”

Food- and TV-related cruise options

The object of our attention is a chef, Richard Blais, who wouldn’t be drawing such notice except for the fact that he won Season 8 of the Bravo TV show “Top Chef,” of which this entire ship is something of a spinoff. Yes, this is “Top Chef: The Cruise.”

I decline Rose’s offer, but she’s not having it. “No! Go! That’s what you’re here for!” I demur again. She insists again. “Look, no one back home will believe you if you don’t have a picture!”

Fearing that her pushing might get physical, I tell her that I’m on this cruise as a journalist, that I’ve met Blais a few times and that I’m more interested in hearing why she’s here than in acting on any fanboy tendencies of my own. Finally, she relents.

But Rose’s vehemence makes it clear how intensely she feels about Blais — and the show. And it’s reactions like hers that explain why “Top Chef: The Cruise” drew a sold-out crowd for its voyage from Miami to Cozumel and back in the spring. Rose and her fellow fans jumped at the chance to get up close and personal with some of their favorite reality-show stars — or at least as up close and personal as you can get when 2,000 people are trying to do the same thing.

It makes a lot of sense: Cruise ships are fishbowls anyway, floating hotels that devotees love and critics hate for some of the same reasons. (Pro: You don’t have to leave the boat! Con: You can’t leave the boat!) So you may as well bide your time with others who share at least one of your interests. Standing in line for dinner or a safety drill or a shore excursion, all you have to do to strike up a conversation is ask, “Which season was your favorite?”

“I was all about Seasons 7, 8 and 9,” Rose says when I ask her. “Season 10? Well, not so much.”

It turns out that Rose and her husband “are not very into cruises,” she confesses. “But as soon as we saw it on TV, I bought it right away. I didn’t even hesitate.” And therein lies the other marketing genius of themed cruises: They draw people who are more into the theme than into cruising, getting people onto the boat who otherwise would never be there.

Bonding with Blais

But what does jogging have to do with “Top Chef,” you wonder? Blais’s run was part of the cruise’s attempt to put the cheftestants in situations where they could display “hidden talents” and bond with passengers over something that doesn’t involve cooking. (Though there was plenty of that, too.)

Among other things, that means that Blais takes a group for a jog, Washington chef Spike Mendelsohn (Seasons 4 and 8) challenges passengers to Ping-Pong, Mike Isabella (Seasons 6 and 8) holds court at a poker table, Tiffany Derry (Seasons 7 and 8) plays beach volleyball after a cooking demo in Cozumel, and head judge Tom Colicchio straps on his guitar and plays a bluesy set with his favorite band.

For Blais, the run gives him the chance to explain how — and why — he lost 30 pounds between his first go-round on the show (he was runner-up on Season 4) and his second.

“We see ourselves on TV and we think, ‘Wow, I need to run,’ ” he tells the 50 or so people who have gathered around him. “You hear that TV adds 10 or 20 pounds, but it really just reveals the truth.”

More important, he says, he wanted to do more than just memorize recipes for “All-Stars,” the Season 8 show he won; he wanted to train physically, because the second time, he understood just how demanding the process would be. “Try running through your Whole Foods at home sometime,” he says, referring to a common scene on the show when the contestants rush to buy ingredients. “The worst part would be, I’m in my chef’s jacket so people are like, ‘Can you tell me where to find garbanzo beans?’ I’m like, ‘Aisle 17, and by the way I’m a little busy right now.’ ”

It’s just such behind-the-scenes stuff that these cruisers signed up to hear, and they eat it up. And then off they go, following as Blais sets a relatively leisurely pace. A few laps around, everybody is staying respectfully behind him, so he calls out with a smile, “Look at me! I’m winning!” Again.

Smile for the camera

“I would have come on the cruise just for Tom,” says Renee, a 50-something woman from Tulsa traveling solo. Or rather, for her daughter, who seems to think that she might be able to play matchmaker. “Every time she sees Tom on the show she’s like, ‘Mom, Tom Colicchio is so cute.’ ”

We’re in line with hundreds of other passengers for our assigned-slot photo session in a top-floor lounge. A group of cheftestants and judges, including Colicchio and Gail Simmons (a judge from Food & Wine magazine), is posing for photo after photo as various groups of eight passengers line up behind them.

There’s almost zero interaction with the chefs as my group gets brought around. They’re facing away from us, and I hear the grumbles from disappointed passengers as the cattle-call reality becomes clear. Why pay to come on the boat and schmooze with people who won’t even pretend to schmooze back? As if they can read the group’s mind, two of the friendliest cheftestants of all — Angelo Sosa (Seasons 7 and 8) and Fabio Viviani (Seasons 5 and 8) — turn around, grin and start high-fiving each of us as we line up. Smiles break out, everyone faces forward again, and the cameras flash.

Then we’re herded out, and the next eight are herded in to take our place.

Chaos on the cruise

Maybe they should have called this cruise “Top Chef: Unedited.”

Every night there’s a live cooking competition in the ship’s auditorium, modeled after one of the show’s “Quickfires” (typically a 10-to-20-minute challenge in which the cheftestants have to make a dish with, say, vending machine food). But unlike on the show, which is produced by the company Magical Elves, here there’s a live commentator and a single cameraman trying to help the audience make sense of all the action — with varying degrees of success.

On Day One, for instance, the Quickfire involves the chefs pairing up with audience members for “team sandwich,” in which one chef and one civilian pulled from the audience tie themselves into a single apron and each use just one hand to put together a sandwich.

It’s before dinner, and while the chefs seem to have their wits about them, the audience members who help seem to be pretty tipsy, if not out-and-out drunk. (Judging from conversations with passengers, the cruise’s “alcohol package” was a big seller.) The action is disjointed, the jokes are punctuated by cruise humor (“We have to tell you that whoever loses will be thrown overboard,” says Hubert Keller, a “Top Chef Masters”alum), and at some point it degenerates into chaos that would have ended up on the cutting-room floor if this had been television.

Mendelsohn starts throwing herbs into the audience. The chefs all start throwing cheese at one another. When one audience member, who’s helping Keller judge the dishes, is asked what she thinks, there’s a little problem you wouldn’t see on TV: Her mouth is full right when all eyes turn to her, so she covers it politely, and the seconds tick by until an audience member screams out, “Swallow!”

It’s enough to make you wish for a magical elf.

At dinner that night, the women at my table have a word for what we’ve witnessed onstage: A Slowfire. “They didn’t need 20 minutes just to make a sandwich,” says Shoshana, who’s on the cruise with her friend Maura. “Not even with one hand.”

The two are from Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz., and they bought their tickets on impulse. “I’m kind of ‘Top Chef’-crazy,” Shoshana says. But she has a complaint about the cruise: no single guys. “Lots of girlfriends, gay couples and straight couples where the guy looks like he was dragged onto the boat,” she says.

(Clearly she hasn’t met Kenny, of Kenny and Lisa, who sat next to me in the auditorium. Kenny is possibly even more into this whole thing than his wife. “Everybody’s here for the same reason,” he tells me. “To hook up with Gail.” At which he and his wife cackle — and order another round of drinks.)

Details, details

Remember the classic “Saturday Night Live” sketch from the 1980s in which William Shatner plays himself at a “Star Trek” convention? The questions from geeked-out Trekkers get so picayune that he eventually explodes with his “Get a life! It was just a show!” speech.

Well, it starts to feel a bit like that at times on “Top Chef: The Cruise.” Take the Q&A session with Colicchio and several of the contestants, where passengers ask things like, “When that food accidentally got left out of the fridge and had to get thrown out at the Nationals game, what happened to it? We never knew how that ended up affecting the challenge.”

Colicchio’s Shatneresque response? “Come on, man, that was like three years ago!” A producer adds: “The team had the opportunity to remake their bacon.” Phew. The world can breathe a collective sigh of relief now that this crucial mystery has been solved.

Other exchanges are a little more enlightening. “What if there’s a tie?” one passenger asks. “That’s why I’m the head judge,” Colicchio responds. And still others, not so much. When one passenger asks what the panel’s favorite unseen moments were, Viviani cries out in his thick Italian accent, “I’ve got a good one!” And he tells a rambling, barely intelligible tale of drinking vodka and stuffing one of his competitors into a laundry bag and hanging him from a second-floor landing. Brooke Williamson (Season 10) tells of games in the “stew room,” where the contestants, waiting for hours while the judges deliberated, concocted 20-second spoofs of Quickfire challenges.

Then, of course, there are those questions that really aren’t. One passenger practically assaults the microphone and screams out, “I want to say hey to all the Texas people in the house! Texasss!!!” Then he says to Colicchio, who is wearing shades, “Tom, the ladies love your eyes. Show us your eyes!” Williamson quips, “Did you take both of those shots they gave you?” The answer is fairly obvious.

One young woman, who clearly hasn’t been on many cruises, asks, “How do you feel about how your dishes are coming across here onboard? Some are not so, well . . . ”

Tim Love (Season 1, “Top Chef Masters”) fires back: “How many times have you made 1,000 plates before? I’d like to congratulate the ship’s chefs on a job well done.”

So what about the food onboard? Every meal features recipes by the show’s chefs in addition to the usual menu. The consensus among passengers: By and large, the additions are a better bet than the regular dishes, at least at the default, no-extra-charge restaurant, San Marco. A tomato soup with curried whipped cream by Sosais lively and interesting, while the ship’s standard cream of wild forest mushroom soup is, well, standard.

And the winner is — “Top Chef”!

Timing and taste buds

At a cooking demo one night, Colicchio and Simmons mix flirtatious banter (Simmons: “I like a spicy cocktail”; Colicchio: “I’ve heard that about you”) with some honest-to-goodness helpful cooking tips. The best way to chop ginger? Colicchio demonstrates: Peel it with a teaspoon, cut it into medallions, smash each with the side of a knife, and then mince away.

When someone calls out a question about timing, Simmons makes a pitch for forgetting about that: “The key to cooking well is to pay attention,” she says. “Feel it out as you go and be willing to make adjustments along the way. Times aren’t as important as what you see and smell.”

But enough cooking. Let’s ask more questions about “Top Chef,” shall we?

Where’s the next season? Colicchio can’t say (since the cruise took place, it’s been announced: New Orleans, premiering Oct. 2). Best chefs ever on the show? Colicchio praises a lot of them but comes down to Austin’s Paul Qui, winner of Season 9.

The hardest season to judge? Season 3, the two agree. The finale judging lasted through the night as the judges debated the difference between a meal by Dale Levitski that had higher highs and lower lows and the one by eventual winner Hung Huynh that was more consistent. “These are the kinds of conversations we labor over,” Colicchio says, “because we decided early on that because you can’t taste on TV, we have to talk.”

Simmons adds: “Until we get Smell-o-Vision, we are the only taste buds you guys have.”

And for the finale . . .

The last night on board, more passengers — and chefs — seem to stay up later than usual. Maybe it’s just me, but we all seem to want to wring out as much interaction with the celebs as we can before we go back to our own non-televised reality. We get a chance to focus completely on the chefs’ food during a taste-around on deck, where each chef stands at a station serving a little bite: brioche with thyme and rosemary from Qui, tostones with garlic oil and bay leaf salt from Sosa, quinoa-crusted sweet, sour and spicy chicken wings from Casey Thompson (Season 3).

One passenger near me takes one bite of the last and says, “I know it’s not a competition, but these are the best.” I interject, “It’s always a competition,” which prompts Thompson to turn to me and say, “Right!”

As Keller starts spinning records for a sendoff dance party in the grand foyer, I catch Sosa in the martini bar, where he’s been making drinks for passengers off and on. I’ve met him before, including when I was part of the on-camera action during a few scenes of the Washington season a few years ago, and will admit that of all the chefs, he may be the one who turns me from journalist to fanboy. I ask him to show me the very involved handshake I keep seeing him and Isabella do.

“Sure,” he says. “But first you have to focus.” He reaches over and unbuttons a couple of buttons on my shirt — to match his own devil-may-care style, of course — and we go through it a few times. (It involves a slap, a bump, a “moustache” and two whistles. Very complicated.)

As the music blares and Keller pumps his fist in the air, I hear Shoshana, the “Top Chef”-crazy Arizona woman, say, “Want me to take your picture?” I hand her my phone. Sosa and I raise our glasses, and the flash goes off.

Don’t believe me? Well, I could show you that shot — but, really, you just had to be there.

Joe Yonan is the Food and Travel editor of The Washington Post and the author of "Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook." He writes the Food section's Weeknight Vegetarian column.
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