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Learning from Tahiti

On a Polynesian cruise with two French chefs, a food innocent becomes a gastronome.

It was, as it always is, a warm night in Tahiti, and our handsome 320-passenger ship, the Paul Gauguin, was leaving the busy port of Pape'ete for a weeklong, five-stop cruise in the Society Islands of French Polynesia. In the main dining room, a waiter was pouring a white Bordeaux. "It has some character, but it's not really a full-bodied wine," he said. "On the first night, the passengers are tired, and since they don't want to concentrate, we serve our lightest wines."

Without even considering its color or bouquet, I took a sip. Then I took another sip and another and another. I guess it was a light wine, but I couldn't really tell, not because I was tired, but because I had never taken the time to understand wine. In fact, faced with most wine and food--French food, in particular--I had always thought of myself as a kind of noble savage, blissfully ignorant of the corrupting, civilizing influence of too much knowledge.

This cruise, then, with a pair of French chefs aboard to re-create the best dishes from their two-Michelin-star restaurants and a wine expert to give seminars, was going to be an intensive education for me. But French Polynesia has always been good at making Westerners examine the way they live. Inspirational to writers and artists--Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Somerset Maugham, James Michener and, of course, Gauguin himself--these volcanic islands are places of such constant natural beauty that it becomes impossible for visitors not to pay a little more attention than usual to their surroundings. "This region is a festival of the senses," says Jean-Claude Potier, who helped create the Gauguin's culinary program for the ship's operator, Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, "so why not have an especially nice gastronomic experience while you're here?"

After a night of cruising westward on a teal-blue sea to anchor beside the twin islands of Raiatea and Taha'a, I was introduced to the two guest chefs. They spoke English but preferred to relay their cryptic responses to my questions through a translator in their entourage. Because they did not believe that I could understand anything about their work until I sampled it, they were utterly inscrutable about their philosophy and craft.

"We maintain a base of classical French cooking," said Jean-Pierre Vigato, the chef and owner of Apicius, in Paris. "We buy good ingredients and put them together," added Gilles Tournadre, the chef and owner of Gill, in Rouen. "It's about simplicity, that's all."

But later, as I toured the 17th-century temples on Raiatea, the cultural heart of the archipelago, then walked around Uturoa, a town populated by a mix of mellow Polynesians and giddy Western travelers, I wondered what the chefs meant by simple. From what I had seen at dinner the night before, simplicity did not seem to be what the food was about.

Simplicity was the untouched beauty of Raiatea, which in Polynesian creation myths is considered the birthplace of the gods. Simplicity was the sound of my footsteps up a coconut-palm-covered hillside that looked out over bright green Temehani mountain and Uturoa's bright blue lagoon. Simplicity was the call of mynahs in the trees and the way masked booby birds and White Fairy terns circled effortlessly in the mild afternoon air.

At dinner that night, Oliver Hammerer, the hotel director of the ship (and a raging connoisseur) looked at a sophisticated dish--roast turbot fillet with caramelized garlic and carrots scented with cumin--and praised it for being uncomplicated. "Very basic, very simple," he said. Although I disagreed, I couldn't explain why. I did, however, praise a glass of 1949 Lafite presented to us by a man at a nearby table who was celebrating his birthday.

"I'm not impressed," said an erudite Norwegian sitting next to me. "And I'm not convinced that it has been stored properly, either."

I left the table feeling like an idiot. Things did not improve in the Connoisseur Club later. Other guests seemed so refined as they warmed their Cognac by cupping their hands around their snifters. I chugged down one too many and ended up with, as the French would say, a buttered nose. Eventually I stumbled to the deck, retired to my cabin without so much as a nod of acknowledgment to the Southern Cross above my head, wolfed down the delicate handmade petits fours left on my bedside table and went to sleep.

My redemption began the following day. Manfred Esser, the former president of Cuvaison Winery in Napa and a noted oenophile, was conducting a white wine tasting for beginners. "Wine is the most complicated product that people can consume," he told a standing-room-only audience of French and American passengers. After making it quite clear that good wines do cost more no matter what we would like to think, he showed us how to swirl the wine in our glasses and coaxed us to really stick our nose inside and inhale. Finally, he encouraged us not to take the careful little sips that I had always taken, but to slurp the wine, leave it on our tongue and draw a breath so we could consider its array of flavors. "You feel it?" he asked as I swallowed. "You feel the tail going down? The better the wine, the longer the finish."

In fact, I was starting to feel it. Later that day, I took a launch to a private island that is made available to Gauguin passengers for everything from lounging to picnics to Robinson Crusoe-like isolation. While others drank and ate and laughed, I kayaked over luminescent blue waters, savoring every stroke. I snorkeled, taking in outlandishly gorgeous lemonpeel angelfish, blue damsels and Moorish idols. But even then, surrounded by so much exotic beauty, I have to admit I was thinking about dinner.

One morning, while the other passengers were getting ready to go out swimming with the stingrays or jet-skiing or scuba diving or bicycling on Bora Bora, I took an illuminating tour of the ship's massive kitchen. I watched Vigato bear down with large, assured hands to cut up a rack of veal. He carefully considered how to slice a terrine of leeks, and as he placed each slice on a plate, it became as beautiful as a painting by Paul Klee. Beside him were the oyster mushrooms and chanterelles that he had carefully selected to garnish the veal, and a container of the gray Paludier De Guerande sea salt that he told me he had brought with him from France because its taste and texture are integral to his cooking. Behind him were pots of veal and fish stock that had been simmering for hours, gallons and gallons of liquid reduced to deeply flavorful essences.

It was these reductions that finally gave me a visceral understanding of the extraordinary extraction of pure flavors from the simplest ingredients--the art for which French cuisine is known. Lemon or pepper or mustard sauce is easy. But a reduction requires an elaborate, time-consuming kind of alchemy. Witnessing the amount of work behind each item on the menu, I felt remorse for having consumed my dinner the night before so thoughtlessly.

Meanwhile, the other chef, Tournadre, was struggling with a tool called an emporte pièce to find just the right way to bore a hole in an apple that he would braise in cider and stuff with dried fruits and fresh-milk ice cream. Outside a porthole, Bora Bora was rising up behind an achingly beautiful lagoon fringed by a barrier reef--the original, beckoning Bali Hai--but Tournadre was too consumed to see it. "This," he said as he worked with the delicate intensity of a heart surgeon, "is very complicated."

When the white and red Bordeaux were poured that night, I swirled and sniffed and tasted in an attempt if not to understand, then at least to appreciate what I was drinking. And with visions of the craftsmanship behind every detail of the meal, I savored each course with a new level of sensitivity. When dessert was served, Hammerer, the hotel director, nodded. "So wonderfully simple," he said of the stuffed apple. "Simple? There's nothing simple about it," I said with newfound conviction.

In the days that followed, I attended two more cooking and wine seminars, which left me with a better understanding of what goes into a great chef's menu and into an extraordinary bottle of wine. By the end of the week, when we anchored in Cook's Bay off the island of Mo'orea, I had learned something else, too. Being as conscious of beauty as possible--whether it's on the horizon, on your plate or in your glass--makes you feel fully alive in the world.

Innocence lost, paradise gained. I am the noble savage no more.

Bob Morris is a regular contributor to the Style section of The New York Times.

Published May 2000
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