To look at the dinner menus aboard the Viking Helgrim, you would think that Executive Chef Peter Benko is a born and bred Portuguese citizen. “Picanha Com Esmagado de Batata e Espinafres” (seared rump steak with crushed potatoes and spinach)? “Caldeirada de Peixe” (Portuguese fish and seafood stew)? “Quindim de Coco com Ananas” (caramellzed pineapple and coconut cake)? He MUST be Portuguese, we thought.
But Benko, who brings out three different meals each day of an 8-day cruise, not to mention regional specialties on the dinner menu, snacks and extra breakfast pastries and homemade soups, aboard the 106-passenger boat on the Douro River, is a Hungarian native. A former kick boxer whose mother, he says, was a good cook but who himself hasn’t had any more formal cooking education than a two-week course in Avignon, France, a short con fab of river chefs of the Douro, and work as a chef in a restaurant in the UK for six and a half years as well as cooking on boats on the Danube, the Rhine and the Mosel rivers for two years, has enthusiastically embraced the delicious cuisine of his adopted country. In fact, 50 percent of the food that Benko prepares on the Helgrim is Portuguese, one dinner buffet was made up entirely of only Portuguese specialties, and on one morning away from the kitchen, he gave a demonstration on how to cook the famous Portuguese “pastel de nata,” a delicate custard-filled pastry that shows up in bakeries all over the country.
Benko, 37, says he finds the Douro River, and Portugal, “great,” and he mentioned especially the “francesinha,” a sandwich created in Porto made out of thickly sliced bread layered with fried pork belly or bacon, then smoked chorizo or linguica sausage, then roast pork slices, medium-rare beefsteak, a fried egg and cheese, and a sweet/salty/tangy tomato and beer-based sauce. Other than that enormous and heavy sandwich, Benko likes to make “light, healthy food with lots of vegetables and no chili, no coriander or any very spicy food. I like it to be pretty, and have nice aromas,” he noted. His own favorite item on the Helgrim menu is grilled octopus and his favorite item to cook is “soup – all kinds. I love to put together four different ingredients and build a soup, and I make all my soup stock from scratch.”
We asked if diners with special requests such as vegetarians, vegans or gluten-free eaters caused him cooking problems, and he said no, that the only diners who were difficult for him to serve were those who must have Kosher food. And as to the biggest challenge of cooking in a boat kitchen, he said “space is the problem; I have to do all my cooking in a kitchen of 35 square meters” (42 square yards).
Does the chef continue to cook when he goes home to Hungary, we asked? “I do,” he answered. “But there, I cook whatever my girlfriend wants.”
Many river boats have more than one restaurant, but the Helgrim, called a “baby longboat,” at 262 feet is smaller than many because it must pass through five different locks on its way upriver from Porto to Barca d’Alba, including the Carrapatelo, Europe’s largest at 115 feet high. The Helgrim doesn’t even have a specialty restaurant or an outdoor restaurant for al fresco eating. Diners can carry their food, however, if they wish, to the sundeck or the deck off the lounge if they would like to eat in the open air. The boat has a large lounge for meetings and entertainment, which is offered every night during the cruise. A library and gift shop are available for passengers, as well as laundry service. Staterooms are decorated in Scandinavian minimalist style, clean and open, many with small balconies. The bathrooms are fitted with luxurious Villeroy and Boch fixtures, and their best feature is a light under the sink area at foot level which serves as a helpful always-on nightlight.
Story courtesy of Julie Hatfield and photos courtesy of Timothy Leland.