Lauded by Thomas Keller, published by Rizzoli, and honored with a slew of international gastronomic awards, Rudi Sodamin, Holland America Line’s master chef, is often happiest with a cheeseboard and fine bottle of wine. When I catch up with him in Marbella, Spain — he’s on holiday after disembarking in Amsterdam—the Austrian-born chef with the Mediterranean palette has Côtes de Provence on his mind. We talked about his idea of home cooking, his early lightning bolt moment, and of course, Sel De Mer — actually Rudi’s Sel De Mer — the new Provencal concept restaurant that’s delighting taste buds on one Holland America Line ship after another.
Where are we in the timeline of Rudi’s Sel De Mer?
It’s our first seafood brasserie. Some ships, like Westerdam, have a pop-up version in Pinnacle Grill, a slice of the experience. But if you go on Koningsdam or Nieuw Statendam there’s a full-standing Sel De Mer, which is really fantastic, a complete restaurant. We’re adding it on Ryndam, the new ship. The ambience has a lot of warmth and people love the Côtes de Provence-style. It’s a mostly seafood menu, but you can still have a steak, and some cassoulet dishes.
I could talk about your bouillabaisse all day. To me, nothing spells Provence like that dish. What should we know about it?
The fish stock is the secret. But then again, there’s really no secret — it’s the knowledge of the chef. Some chefs use saffron, some use tomatoes. And there’s the pepper, the bread, the egg yolk. But to me the strength of the stock is most important. It’s actually better the second day than the first night. The fish has to be only the freshest — lobster, mussels, shrimp. I wish I could cook it for you. It’s easier to cook than to talk about!
On Westerdam’s Alaska Land+Sea itinerary, I really loved the grilled lobster in the pop-up version of the brasserie. But then, I loved it all, from the seafood to the Provencal presentation. It brought me right back to Marseille.
I’m a presentation freak, what kind of food fits on what plate. You know, cruise ships generally don’t have seafood restaurants. They have Italian, steak houses, but no seafood. So I went to Côtes de Provence and I stayed a few weeks there, based in Nice, and I went to see some seafood restaurants. I love the market in Nice, by the way — I was photographing the stalls like crazy. I loved the culinary cultural experience. I went to bistros — you see the fish come in in the morning. So I made a proposal. I said, let’s do this on Holland America Line.
When was the launch?
We launched two years ago on Nieuw Statendam. I was very proud that all the Holland America Line executives were there, very proud of what we’d accomplished.
Ok, so tell me the first recent Mediterranean meal that comes to mind.
It was on Mykonos. I had some lamb. So fresh — it was fantastic. We didn’t have a specific place in mind or a reservation. We just sat down wherever we wanted, very spontaneous. Mykonos has so many cheeses, goat cheeses. And grilled octopus, only grilled. All simple food.
At home, cooking what type of meal makes you the happiest? Also simple food?
Yes, I make a nice pasta dish, vegetables, garlic, fresh olive oil and fish. Or just a good bottle of wine and cheese could work for me.
On my last few cruises, guests were very impressed with the variety and quality at Lido Market. What’s your thought about going the extra mile on the buffet?
Almost everyone on the ship eats at Lido Market. We have so many international guests, so it’s much more complicated to look after each guest. We focus on quality and on distinguishing the different stations: Italian, Asian, European … People who know me know that my middle name is quality. I only work with quality food and quality people.
I noticed that many people were eating very healthily, and that the salad bar was especially popular. I had the salad with seared tuna almost every day.
The interest in health is here to stay, and I think it’s just the beginning. I think in the future we’ll move even more toward healthier cuisine.
What was your lightning bolt moment in terms of living the culinary life?
Back when I was a kid, we grew up in a more sober way — no Internet, no phones. We went to school and we worked. I grew up in Austria. My mother was a chef and my father was a tailor. I had 11 siblings and food was of the utmost importance to us. I worked in apprenticeships in hotels, but the lightning bolt came when I was 22 when I was in France and I applied to work on a ship. Lightning struck again when I became an executive chef at 23. Most executive chefs were 65 years old. If there had been internet and Instagram then, I would have been a sensation. I was 45 or 46 when I joined Holland America Line in 2005.
You’re a sensation now, with your cookbooks, including the recent “Food Faces: 150 Feasts for the Eyes.” And now you have your own branded restaurants that sail all over the world. Where is home base? You must live near the sea.
Yes, in Miami.
I live in Miami part-time!
Let’s get dinner one night, hello!
You’re on. You can even cook for me! Bouillabaisse?
Drew Limsky is the founding editor-in-chief of Holland America Line’s award-winning Mariner magazine and currently is a contributor to the publication, making him an ideal writer for Holland America Blog. As a travel journalist for outlets including The New York Times, Drew quickly realized that destination writing not only was a way of experiencing beautiful places, but also a way of meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. Drew broke into journalism as a book reviewer for The Washington Post and an op-ed writer for The Los Angeles Times.