The bingo players were getting restless. They'd been waiting for John Ash to finish his cooking demo in the Crystal Harmony's rose-pink amphitheater. Ash's hour was up, and he was still putting the final touches on his soft-shell-crab tempura salad with walnut-oil vinaigrette. "This oil will drive you out of your mind. It will leave you writhing on the floor and speaking in tongues," he said as he whirled the dressing in a blender. The bingo players didn't care. They wanted him out. Ash's fans, however, would have none of it. While he tried to make a polite exit, they stormed the stage. Bingo would have to wait.
This battle of wills took place on the seventh day of an 11-day luxury cruise around Australia and New Zealand. John Ash, one of the founders of California cuisine, who now lectures on food-and-wine pairings as the culinary director of Fetzer Vineyards, had been invited on board as a guest chef. This would be his first time Down Under, and while he wasn't exactly writhing on the floor and speaking in tongues, he was certainly excited. "There's so much happening in Australia and New Zealand," he told me. "There's an explosion of interest in food--it reminds me of California 20 or 30 years ago." I'd been hearing the same thing and wanted to investigate.
Like California chefs, the cooks of these countries meld Mediterranean and Pacific Rim influences, with an emphasis on terrifically fresh produce and seafood. As in the Mediterranean, olive oil is key (Australia has even begun making its own) and wine is a part of daily life. As for the Asian presence, bul kogi, a Korean dish of beef wrapped in lettuce leaves, is now as Australian as the Pavlova, a dessert created in the Twenties to honor the ballerina Anna Pavlova.
I flew into Sydney, the epicenter of the culinary tremors taking place Down Under. During my two days in town, I ate bugs (a clawless crustacean) and yabbies (a kind of shrimp) at the Sydney Fish Market, sampled Australian Gruyère at the swanky specialty-foods purveyor Simon Johnson, snacked on fritto misto at the hip MG Garage and marveled at trout confit at the remarkable Tetsuya's, the toughest reservation in the city. Then I was ready to continue my gastronomic exploration on a cruise that would sail around Australia's south-east coast, across the Bass Strait to Tasmania and over the Tasman Sea to the North and South Islands of New Zealand.
The cruise departed from Sydney's famous harbor, where the waters churn with sailboats, tugboats, fishing boats, ferries, freighters, even a Mississippi riverboat. Still, when the Crystal Harmony arrived in port, it made an impression. It was so long, so tall, so sparkling white that the tourists and the locals on the waterfront pointed and smiled. "Your boat?" a young guy with a backpack and an Italian accent asked me. As it happened, he wasn't too far from the truth. For the better part of two weeks, it would be my boat.
Actually, the first lesson I would learn was that one never calls a cruise ship a boat. But education and self-improvement are part of the fun of life at sea. The schedule of daily activities included everything from needlepoint classes to lectures on the state of legal ethics in America. I, however, had my own agenda. The books I'd lugged halfway around the planet, including the new novel by Tom Wolfe, which should be measured not in pages but in pounds, remained unopened. I'd wake up late, take a turn around my powder-blue penthouse stateroom, wander onto my terrace in a fat terry-cloth robe and watch the velvety green coastline slide by. Then I'd wait for my butler, the charming and helpful Atilla, to bring me a poached egg and coffee, and proceed to plan my day.
This required enormous concentration. Would I go to the Grand Gala Buffet for lunch? (Yes.) Would I shop for something long, slinky and sequined at the dress shop? (No.) Would I eat a scone at afternoon tea? (Yes.) Would I repair to my cabin afterward for a revitalizing snack of caviar and crudités? (Oh, yes.) After dinner, would I check out the Crystal Dancers in their Vegas-style revues? (Yes.) Would I hit the slot machines? (No.) Would I drink a martini at the Avenue Saloon? (Make that two, straight up, with olives.)
No matter how busy I was, I managed to find time for John Ash's classes. Ash, a FOOD & WINE Best New Chef of 1985 who went on to write award-winning cookbooks, is a polished instructor with a penchant for horn rims and Hawaiian shirts--half Garrison Keillor, half surfer dude. "If you have never gone shopping for Asian ingredients, it's a wonderful experience, with some of the weirdest stuff you can imagine," he told us as he prepared a lotus-root salad topped with wakame, a seaweed that, he promised, tastes like bacon. At a wine-tasting session one afternoon, he compared a round, slightly oaky Sauvignon Blanc from Kunde in the Sonoma Valley with a tangy, citrusy one from Cloudy Bay in New Zealand's Marlborough region. I fell hard for the Cloudy Bay and drank as much of it as I could, much to the approval of the poker-faced wine steward, who gave me a barely perceptible smile whenever I ordered a bottle that he liked.
Food and wine are major parts of any luxury cruise, but the Crystal line puts a particular emphasis on procuring fresh ingredients along the way. Given the logistical challenge of feeding some 900 passengers a night in its three restaurants (a main dining room and the more intimate Japanese and Italian alternatives), it does an impressive job. In Melbourne, at a stylish new restaurant called Langtons, I ordered a local fish called barramundi; back on the Crystal Harmony, barramundi with a pink mustard sauce was offered at dinner. In Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, I visited an enterprising mushroom farm where fungi grow in trays stacked floor-to-ceiling inside dark, damp barns; back on the ship, I tasted those marvelous mushrooms, sautéed and served with a roasted tomato. In Dunedin, a Scottish-influenced city on the South Island of New Zealand, I visited a protected nesting ground for the rare yellow-eyed penguin; back on the ship I tasted...New Zealand salmon with a red wine sauce.
Eating was the last thing on my mind, however, at one of our destinations. Milford Sound, in an area of New Zealand's South Island called Fiordland, is a narrow inlet only about a mile wide and 10 miles long that was carved out by glaciers. Sheer rock faces with vertigo-inducing waterfalls and sharp, snaggletoothed peaks closed in on both sides as we glided through the mirror-still water. The captain nosed the ship so close to one of the highest waterfalls that I almost felt the spray from where I stood, mesmerized, on the bridge.
In Christchurch, I began to slide back into real-life mode. When we arrived in Auckland, our last stop, I said good-bye to John Ash and to Atilla, knowing that for weeks afterward I would mention "my butler" as often as possible in casual conversation. I also came home with that backbreaking novel (I suspect it will remain unread forever) and a new determination to seek out New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. My wine steward would be happy, if only he knew.