KOTOR, Montenegro – An expensive delicacy, the plump porcini mushrooms looked great to me. But something about them raised the concerns of Rafael Peterkovic.
He eyed the mushrooms carefully, thumped their thick stems with his forefinger. Sniffed them, too. Then asked the mushroom vendor if he could use a knife to slice one open.
What Rafael saw turned my stomach.
The mushroom was filled with small worms happily munching away. The vendor just shrugged her shoulders, knowing she had lost a sale.
I’ve cruised many times but this is a first – an option called Shopping With the Chef. When our Seabourn Odyssey docked in Kotor, Montenegro, a small group of passengers went ashore with Executive Chef Rafael to pick out some special items from the market lining the ancient streets by the seaside.
The tour is offered once a cruise and books up very quickly. Kotor is one of his favorite cruise shopping places, Rafael says.
“It is famous for its cheese, olives and olive oil,” he says. “You can buy the best olive oil here, stone milled and cold pressed olive oil.”
With the popularity of cooking shows, chefs have become today’s celebrities. Rafael is already an impressive figure. But wearing his Seabourn white chef’s jacket, Rafael seems to magically part the waters as he walks with determination through the stalls. We follow in his wake.
Heading straight for a neat stand in the bustling market, Rafael is immediately greeted by the vendor who brings out a plate of sliced cheese. I didn’t know that tasty treats would be a part of the tour. Yummy!
This particular family-owned business has some excellent cheeses and prosciutto sliced paper thin and presented to us for sampling. The ham is hand sliced with a very sharp knife, I learned, because using an electric slicer would heat up the meat and change its taste. Food is a very serious business here.
Next we taste olives and dried fruit. This is the first time I’ve ever had dried strawberries. I didn’t even know they could be dried. They taste like delicious chewy candy. “No sugar, nothing has been added,” Rafael says. “They are just natural strawberries, dried.”
A fish stand behind us got scant attention from the chef who noted that last night’s rainstorm had cut back on the fish caught. “The boats go out at nighttime and come back in the morning,” he says. “Usually there would be plenty of fish but it is very limited today. I order my fish in advance so we always have what we need.”
After loading up his assistant with bags of goodies, the chef heads back to the ship and I chat with him on the way. Originally from Metzingen, Germany, Chef Rafael laughs when I ask how he got in the culinary profession.
“It was coincidence,” he says. “Originally, I wanted to study physics. I had excellent grades in science in high school and my teachers recommended me for science at the university.”
But before he began his long years of university study, Rafael decided he needed a break. So did his three best friends. “We were very good friends. We had grown up in the same village, went to school together. We all three decided to take a break first.”
However, “taking a break” did not mean the buddies didn’t have to work. “We went to the job bank and saw jobs for cooks. We thought we could do that.”
And they never looked back. “All three of us are still chefs,” Rafael says.
After attending culinary school in Heidelberg, Rafael started his career in Michelin-starred restaurants throughout Germany, before being lure to sea by Cunard liners. He sailed with Seabourn from 2000 to 2006 and returned this year.
What does he like best about being the Odyssey executive chef? “I like the people,” he says. “My team is fantastic. I am very proud of them. “
What does he like least? “Public speaking,” he quickly answers. “I hate public speaking. It is the worst thing that can happen. The kitchen is my domain. That is where I like to be.”
To be in charge of a cruise ship kitchen requires extreme organization and long hours, Rafael says. “My kitchen is 100 percent organized. It has to be,” he says. “On Seabourn, we cook ala carte. It is completely different from the big ships. We cook what the passenger wants. We don’t just put it in a microwave and heat it up.”
His favorite food? “I like Mediterranean food. It is simple and good.”
Working four months on and two months off, Rafael heads to his home in Stuttgart to relax in his off time. But he is always happy to return to the sea. “The best compliment that someone can give is to say they like what I prepared. Those are the words I want to hear. ”
No worries about that on the Odyssey. Although our voyage has just started, I have heard nothing but compliments about the delicious food created by Chef Rafael and his team.
In fact, I’m going to head back on board right now for lunch. Will tell you more about the Odyssey dining and restaurant options tomorrow. Or the day after. Time to eat.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch