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Swiss Steamer Dining

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Dinner on a 100-year-old steamship on Lake Geneva by one of Switzerland's most famous chefs - complete with my behind-the-scenes visit of the kitchens.

Last week I had a memorable dinner on the Savoie, a giant paddle steamer that tours Lake Geneva and serves Philippe Chevrier's food, one of Switzerland's three-Michelin-star chefs. The occasion was to celebrate a most unique 63d wedding anniversary for Hans and Heidi, relatives originally from the Eastern part of Switzerland. That's their real names, like the characters of Swiss children novel Heidi. The boat was my idea, but I only understood what a serendipitous choice I had made, when Heidi told me what follows: «FX, do you know that I met Hans for the first time on this very boat in 1943. We were in autumn and it was the last ride of the «Savoie» for the season. I was due to go back to Schaffausen and decided to go for a boat ride, that was the last occasion I could do it. France was still occupied by the Krauts and were were sailing right on the border between Switzerland and the Axis. And that's where I met Hans, my husband of 63 years. I immediately spotted him as a fellow Swiss-German. Then we met again and you know the rest.»

They were to marry in a small village church near Schaffausen on the German border but at the last minute decided to do it in Geneva to take advantage of the rock-bottom prices at the Parc de la Grange, a luxury restaurant that did no business during the war and was just too happy to host a working class wedding. This must have been the best idea in their entire life. The Schaffausen church was bombed on the night of their wedding. I am not making this up.

Upon hearing this tale of the random and fragile nature of human life, suddenly made plainly aware of their inevitable loss, I immediately felt an intense need for earthly pleasures. I rushed down to the kitchens.

Carpaccio de dorade rose marinée au citron vert et piment d'Espelette waiting to go up the stairs and down my gullet. A cheering sight.

The galley or kitchens are located below the main deck, you can see water through the porthole. A very busy place with waiters rushing down the stairs and collecting haute dishes from the cooks swinging around the salamandre (see below). Gilbert Renaud, the dynamic chef was very nice and let me shoot as many pictures as I wanted. You can see a 360° Panorama of the Kitchens, unfortunately rather empty as the cooks were all running around and I had to Photoshop them out of my pictures so as not to cut them as the seams.

The chef is giving a last emulsion to a sauce ...

... before his sous chef uses it on a dish.

While a cook works the sauté station, ...

... everybody else dances around the huge salamander, the center of the kitchen. Even on a relatively quiet day, they turn out dozens of plates in a couple minutes and every last dish has to come out perfect and warm.

While cooks place each ingredient on the plates ...

... meat ...

... sauce ...

... the sous chef uses his towel to remove any unsightly drops from the plate sides ...

... before handing the plates to the young waitress ...

... who carries them to my table. Asparagus, a polenta French frie and a rare but warm filet of beef - just like I asked. Job well done!

The boat has two dining rooms - the cosy lower deck (picture) and the upper deck dining room for a total of 250 diners.

Homard du Maine rôti aux girolles, jus des carapaces

Caviar d'aubergine et tomate séchée

Back down in the galley to see the chef personally preparing a special order adorned with fresh edible flowers ...

... which he places on a tray ...

... for the waiter to bring up two floors on foot ...

... until the maîtresse d' can present it to us. Veal rib roast from Simmenthal, a bucolic Alpine valley near the Aletsch glacier. The meat for two goes to the bar at the back of the upper deck dining room for cutting, then comes back on the plates.

Filet de veau de Simmental poêlé à la sauge Légumes du marché à l'huile d'olive, frite de polenta

Meanwhile our boat calls at Yvoire in France for a few minutes.

Unless you unboard, no custom official comes to bother you during dinner.

Back in the kitchen where the chef is busy plating the dessert while exchanging jokes with his staff. Very cool under the pressure indeed, as he is working directly below the air conditioner. The year we started these gastronomic cruises there was no air conditionning in the kitchen. The temperature reached 56°C / 132°F one day - that made the ice creams start to melt before they even touch the plate, the chef explained.

The desserts are carried up by one of the athletic waiters, ...

... then a second round comes with the post-desserts madeleine, marshmallow and the love child of a christmas tree ball and a lollipop, the only thing I didn't like in the whole meal.

Time to see the captain. Mr Leuenberger, the young boatsman kindly escorts me across the slippery deck to the narrow ladder leading up to the command center.

Meet Monsieur Beauval, the captain, only master after Bacchus on this boat.

You can see the machine room from above, a very impressive machine kept well-oiled by two grease monkeys to make sure the huge paddle wheels continue to turn. My pictures do not convey the feeling of massive power in front of this hundred year old machine, but have a look at the Machine Room Panorama.

As much as food, this trip is above the view, the breeze and the feeling of quietness you get while sitting on the upper deck, looking at the water unfold behind you.

As we draw near to Coppet, ...

... we see a surprising number of people waiting for the boat at this nightly hour (9PM). A bunch of kids starts to yell School is out, school is out!. Before the crew can protest, they jump into the water ...

... and swim to the back of the boat. What is going on?