James George, 49, executive chef aboard the Safari Endeavour, has the kind of resume that makes you double-take.
A graduate of Johnson & Wales in Miami, he went the hotel and country club route, spending eight years at the fabled Breakers in Palm Beach, then a season as executive chef at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club followed by five years at the helm in the kitchen at the adjacent Trump National Golf Club.
"I like golf. I like the perks of being a country club chef, because usually the salaries, benefits and staff are better."
He told me this while sitting at a table in the dining room of the Endeavour, one of a fleet of expedition vessels UnCruise Adventures uses. We were somewhere near Security Bay of Kuiu Island in Alaska. We were far from any links or country clubs.
"This was a midlife-crisis job," he said. "I got divorced and had the ability to travel and was tired of only getting time off in July and August when it’s awful in Florida. I needed to travel and see the world."
He worked for American Cruise Lines from 2014 to 2016, where the food is a little more fine dining, then Atlantic Coast Cruises, where the ship was in port every night. Too corporate, little flexibility, and besides, he had never seen Alaska before. He signed up for UnCruise last year. It’s been six weeks on, six weeks off since then.
The challenges are myriad: He doesn’t get to pick his own staff (it’s James, two sous chefs, a pastry person and a dishwasher in the kitchen for the week); while most cruises offer a buffet for some meals, the Endeavour is all plated meals, so timing is important; and there’s no distributor in Alaska, so food has to be ordered two weeks in advance from Seattle and barged over.
"If we don’t get a delivery, we have to go to Costco or trade with other ships for things like vanilla or yeast," he said (not knowing I’d seen the kitchen white board’s desperate plea for "(expletive) sriracha").
"Sometimes we run a little short. It’s not a perfect science. And then you get a vegan who is allergic to eggplant and mushrooms, so you have to improvise."
The kitchen, while not small, doesn’t have a steamer or a working deep-fryer. There are two ovens, but pastry chef Amanda Randall is using one of them most of the day for baking bread and desserts. Staff eats an hour before the guests, often the same meal.
So what should savvy guests know about cruise food?
"Look for salad and fresh produce at the beginning of the week and more soups toward the end. You’ll see more berries at the beginning of the week and fruit compotes at the end."
Hardly roughing it, but duly noted.